Archive for September 23, 2016

Late Season Harbingers Return

1182 for publication September 23, 2016

Ross Brewitt

Harbinger. It’s a word you rarely hear these days. Look it up, I did, in a diligent effort to be concise in what I thought of today’s top-of-the-line sports menu.

“Harbinger, a forerunner, indicating or foreshadowing what is to come.” There’s yer basic harbinger and none of these harbingers are omens of anything good.

Harbinger 1. Seeing a regular outfielder screw-up a routine fly isn’t an acceptable occurrence in any setting. Sure, sometimes it’s the sun, or night lighting. But in today’s game it’s putting all your eggs in one basket, the absolute trust in a big glove, with total disregard for making sure of the catch by using the second bare hand to seal the deal.

Most recently the Jays Melvin Upton Jr. comes to mind. Melvin was standing still, with glove at the ready when he bungled the kind of play that out-lives any excuses.

Or, how about catchers who have an aversion to getting their chest-protector marked-up, preferring to backhand short-hop balls in the dirt, rather than getting in front of the pitch. The result? Can you say “extra bases?”

Then there’s the bare-hand infielder brigade, who consider it time-saving to pick-up the ball with one hand and hurriedly throw without planting their feet. That extra split second would be well spent making sure the ball wouldn’t be bounding down the right field foul-line.

The point being, you can see this variable brand of 80-percent baseball in both leagues, in all divisions, and every day.

Harbinger 2. If you need a new glove, don’t get a yellow one.

No, I’m not talking esthetics. Take the case of Josh Donaldson, Toronto’s darlin’ of the diamond, who’s having a difficult time ever since he received the new glove he sent away to Walmart for… like a decoder ring.

Since first noticing the new glove in late August, the usual sparkling earmarks of Donaldson’s work at the hot corner have taken a hit. By my count, since the new glove arrived, in a plain brown envelope, the Rainmaker’s errors stat has gone from 8 to a team leading 13.

Maybe dig the old glove out of storage. There’s plenty of shoemakers in TO that would contribute a makeover for a nice pair of tickets. In October.

Hey, maybe relief on the field could ease your at-bat problem too.

Harbinger 3. This is a case of let sleeping dogs lie.

Team USA punched their ticket to the sidelines of the wildly successful World Cup of Hockey. According to my insiders who have turned in their reports on time, the American side fell victim to a lack of firepower.

But for others, the blame went even further, back to the influence and will of front office executives like Dean Lombardi, and Brian Burke. Still others were critical of the coach, mild-mannered John Tortorella.

At Team USA’s worst moment, enter Phil Kessel, a player who had his career validated, finally, with a Stanley Cup last season, but was left off team USA for valid reasons. Looming hand surgery.

You would think Kessel would have seen the hornet’s nest of criticism stirred by Jeremy Roenick, and Mike Modano, former American players, bellyaching about Team USA’s performance.

Roenick’s invective didn’t surprise many, including me. Modano’s did. But at least his criticism carried some weight. Unfortunately, Kessel, with his whiny, look-at-me message wasn’t capable of seeing how his petulant remarks would come back on him.

Apparently, Phamous Phil harboured loitering problems, and when passed over by U.S. Hockey’s brain-trust, felt it necessary to air his cryptic grievance on-line. It was a short and bitter sentence about “sitting at home” and “trying to think of something interesting to do.” The shot was aimed directly at Team USA. It was both dumb and unnecessary.

There’s a lesson in this farcical, petulant acting-out. You’re supposed to be professional. Stay off social media, don’t wash your personal problems in any public forum, and try to think of yourself as nothing more than an iota in  the overall picture. Frankly, no-one needs to be burdened or enlightened by what you think.

So, keep your typing-thumbs in your pocket and leave the instant messaging to high-schoolers and selfie-misfits who no-one pays attention to anyway.

Consider it a harbinger. From me, to you.

Rays: Jays Lost More Than a Game

1181 for publication September 15, 2016

Ross Brewitt

The last-place Tampa Bay Rays took their bat and ball and went home late Wednesday afternoon. They left with more than a show-off 8-1 win and two of three games in the series for the second time this month.

They took the Jays swagger with them.

The Rays win was easy, and what may have been a blip in August is now a habit, as the Blue Jays ineffectively bumbled and tumbled their way into third place in the East. This from a top dog position a week ago.

Now they’re on the way to Los Angeles, and something has to change.

After the Jays 2015 breakthrough season, their high hopes from the outset in April of 2016 indicated a flaw in their game, obvious enough for me to mention it in two separate columns. It was a fundamental lack of playing the game aggressively. It was a “sit back and it’ll come,” attitude.

For the most part it was the reluctance to play “small-ball,” the grubby business of getting at least one of the first three batters on-base, the key being the leadoff man.

Inning after inning, the lead-off hitter’s job is reaching first-base by any means, and often, including taking lumps by crowding home plate. Sort’a encroaching on the pitcher’s comfort zone. The lead-off batter is also obliged to have the ability to advance a base or two, in favourable counts by “stealing a base.” The two and three hitters role in any inning is to move him along. It’s called “manufacturing runs.”  It’s been working since baseball began.

The Jays with their star-studded lineup of sluggers, plus a friendly hands-off manager, studiously appear to avoid one or all of those facets of the game. While it’s not 100 percent, the Jays rarely bunt, steal, or start the ball rolling with the hit-and-run. Instead they stubbornly battle the “shift,” and swing for the fences. They don’t “shorten” their batting-grip in two strike counts for better bat control. With one exception.

Darwin Barney is the only Jays hitter I’ve seen regularly shorten-up his grip, since good ol’ Menunori Kawasaki hit the road.

Still, as the formidable group of offensive batters they can be, the Jays can match other teams defensively as fielders. But, again, sometimes the wheels fall off through inattention to detail.

Now, in twelve September games they’ve lost nine. The wins were by 5-3, and two 3-2 nail-biters. Not exactly “piling on” the win column or acting like a contender.

That last 8-1 tussle against Tampa was extra-ugly, in fact a coughed-up hair-ball of a loss. With it, the “here-yuh-go” deposit of blind faith Jays fans had accorded them in April disappeared.

So the promise at the All Star turn is gradually eroding and with it goes confidence, replaced by the usual trades and shuttle diplomacy in the search for bodies and answers.

The sputtering Jays kept up appearances, briefly taking over the lead in the East, and looked strong in doing so. Yet the season seems to be one month too long, much like manager John Gibbons is frequently the guy often a batter or reliever too late.

Still the critics cast a wide net of questions. Why aren’t the relievers up earlier in the bullpen? Who do we have for batting replacements? Why don’t we bunt? Make that why can’t we bunt? How come we don’t steal bases. Why can’t we throw out the people stealing our bases?

And while we’re at it, how many times have we seen throw-ins from outfielders launched to the wrong base, miss the cut-off man, or land well-short wide left or right, and up the line from the intended base or home plate?

We know there’s a “plan” for our batters facing their pitcher, but does anyone follow the plan? We also keep hearing about the “second and third time through the lineup” but it only seems to work for the other guys. And, why the hell is that?

The Jays are sputtering, their fans are wondering, and the questions lacking answers are becoming a barrier.

Injuries be damned, like it or not, the experienced vets on this team have to take charge and force a semblance of order on the group. There’s a piper to be paid, a bell that has to be rung, or this whole season slides down the drain.

As the saying goes, someone has to step up to the plate.

The first date in Anaheim looms large.