The Blue Jays' status as a contender is becoming more tenuous with each passing day. A 5-4 loss to the Indians on Tuesday night was their sixth in the last eight games, dropping them ever closer to .500 at 40-38.
The team was nine games above break-even at the start of June with a 31-22 record but have gone just 9-16 this month, defying the odds after coming into the season as a near universal choice to finish last in the American League East. They are now in fourth place in the major leagues' toughest division, falling eight games behind the Yankees.
The situation is seemingly familiar to last season when the Blue Jays got of the gate at 27-14 before crashing, burning, and finishing with a 75-87 record. The disappointing finish was enough to get general manager J.P. Ricciardi fired and assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos promoted to take his place.
However, the Blue Jays insist this will not be a reprise of last season's fold. While they stop short of boldly proclaiming they are good enough to overtake the AL East's big three of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, the Blue Jays believe they are better than last year.
"I don't think there is any question about that," right fielder Jose Bautista said. "We've got a better team all the way around. We have more depth and our pitching is better. We've been struggling lately, but I know we can still win a lot of games. Really, it's a matter of us getting more consistent. We've got a winning record and we still haven't really showed what we can do offensively."
The Blue Jays are eighth in the AL in scoring with an average of 4.5 runs a game. That is without getting much production from the two hitters who were supposed to spark the attack, as second baseman Aaron Hill has a .233 TAv and designated hitter Adam Lind stands at just .220. Furthermore, outfielder Travis Snider (.280) has been out since May 15 with a sprained right wrist, though he will begin an injury rehabilitation assignment in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League this afternoon.
"You would like to think that Hill and Lind will pick up the pace in the second half and wind up having the type of numbers that you would normally expect from them," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "They're still hitting some home runs, showing signs of what they can do when they get hold of a pitch. Hopefully, things will even out over a long season and they'll hit better. You also cross your fingers with Snider and hope that he picks up where he left off, but he has been out a long time."
What has helped the Blue Jays' offense stay afloat is that center fielder Vernon Wells is having a strong bounce-back season with a .308 TAv after posting a .253 mark last year. Bautista (.306) and catcher John Buck (.282) are also having the best seasons of what had been rather ordinary careers before this year.
The Blue Jays lead the majors with 115 home runs as Bautista became the first player in either league to reach 20 this season and Wells has hit 19, four more than he had all of last season. However, the Blue Jays have been extremely reliant on the home run, as the Blue Jays have scored 51 percent of their runs on the long ball, more than any other major-league team. It's something that isn't likely to change with the personnel on hand.
"That's pretty much what this team is about," Gaston said. "These guys are what they are."
The pitching has also been in the middle of the pack in the AL, ranking seventh by giving up 4.4 runs per game. However, the rotation is young and interesting with a 28-year-old (Shaun Marcum), three 25-year-olds (left-hander Ricky Romero and righties Brandon Morrow and Jesse Litsch), and a 23-year-old (lefty Brett Cecil). Romero has 3.6 SNLVAR, while Marcum has 2.9, Morrow 1.7, and Cecil 1.6. Marcum and Litsch missed the 2009 season while recovering from Tommy John surgeries and Morrow was acquired from the Mariners in an off-season trade for reliever Brandon League.
"We had so many injuries to our rotation last year that it forced us into using some young guys before they were probably ready," Gaston said. "That hurt us at times, but it also enabled guys like Romero and Cecil to gain a lot of experience, which has paid off this year."
"Our starters have been great," Bautista said. "They give us a chance to win almost every single day and they're young and only going to get better. We haven't taken advantage of that pitching as much as we could, but that's also why I think we can still climb back into this thing. If we start hitting the way I know we can and keep getting this kind of pitching then we've still got a run in us. I really don't feel we've played our best baseball yet."
The Nationals were the major leagues' feel-good story just three weeks ago. Highly-touted pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg won his major-league debut on June 8, striking out 14 in seven innings as he beat the Pirates, and those back-to-back 100-loss seasons of the previous two years seemed like a distant memory for the Nationals.
However, not much has gone right for the Nationals since Strasburg's first game, as they have gone 7-13 to drop to 34-44. The Nationals were 20-15 on May 5 but have since gone 14-29 to fall into last place in the National League East, 11 behind the first-place Braves. The Nationals have allowed 37 unearned runs in their last 41 games and have lost 20 of their last 25 games on the road.
"We're tired of complimenting the other team all the time," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We've got to beat the other team. We've got to get after it."
General manager Mike Rizzo was critical of the Nationals' execution in a Washington Post column by Thomas Boswell after they were swept by the Orioles last weekend, stating, "We're underachieving. We're playing bad baseball. Defensively, we're giving away far too many outs. We're not situational hitting."
The calendar is down to the next-to-last day of June, and the Padres are still on top in the NL West, though without hardly any fanfare despite being considered a probable also-ran at the start of the season. In fact, the Padres hold a four-game lead in the division over the second-place Dodgers.
The Padres are 45-32 this season following a strong finish in 2009. They are 82-59 in their last 141 games, a large enough sample size to no longer dismiss the Padres as nothing more than a surprise team off to a good start.
So what is the secret to the Padres' success? Manager Bud Black says it's simple: "Pitching, defense, and be aggressive."
The Padres lead the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 3.3 and are fourth with a .709 Defensive Efficiency. However, Black believes there is an intangible reason why the Padres are making a mockery of the many pre-season prognostications that pegged them to finish last in the NL West.
"These players have a good sense of keeping everything in perspective," Black said. "They are very focused. Almost every game of the season has been that way. We're not looking off into next month. There is no game to play except for the next one."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Rangers' unsettled ownership situation may prevent them from making a major trade for a starting pitcher like Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt, but they still plan to be active before the July 31 non-trading deadline. Some of their targets include A's left fielder Conor Jackson, Orioles infielder Ty Wigginton, and Royals designated hitter/outfielder Jose Guillen. … Guillen is not the Royals player drawing the most trade interest, though, as the Braves, Reds, and Red Sox are all suitors for outfielder David DeJesus, while the Red Sox are also eying infielder Mike Aviles. … The Angels are looking at the Nationals' Adam Dunn and Diamondbacks' Adam LaRoche in their search for a first baseman. Dunn wants to stay with the Nationals and is a strong candidate to re-sign with them over the winter as a free agent if he is dealt. … The Padres are looking to trade for a veteran starter to take some of the workload off their young rotation. … Mark Prior, who last pitched in the major leagues in 2006, will throw for scouts today at the University of Southern California; nearly every club is expected to be represented. … Felipe Lopez is expected to get the majority of starts at third base for the Cardinals with David Freese going on the disabled list.
Three series to watch (all times Eastern, with probable starting pitchers):
Rays (44-32) at Twins (42-35), Thursday-Sunday July 1-4
Jeff Niemann vs. Carl Pavano, 8:10 p.m.; David Price vs. Scott Baker, 8:10 p.m.; Wade Davis vs. Francisco Liriano, 4:10 p.m.; James Shields vs. Nick Blackburn, 2:10 p.m.