As All-Stars return, last-place Blue Jays could still be dangerous

  • Toronto Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson celebrates after a home run off Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber during the third inning in Game 4 of baseball's American League Championship Series in Toronto, Tuesday Oct. 18, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) Frank Gunn

Washington Post
Published: 5/23/2017 9:55:43 PM

The six-week pile-up of injuries that has left the Toronto Blue Jays on the brink of the abyss finally reached the point of absurdity last Thursday. Outfielder Darrell Ceciliani, called up from the minors two days earlier as a fill-in, swatted a home run, but immediately grabbed his shoulder and circled the bases in obvious pain. He had dislocated his shoulder on his home run swing. The next day, he went on the disabled list, which nowadays is a more illustrious group than the one the Blue Jays are putting on the field.

“Injuries are a part of baseball, and every team has them,” Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons said over the weekend, with a tinge of gallows humor. “But you kind of hope they’re spaced out a little bit.”

At one point this weekend, the Blue Jays had 44 percent of their Opening Day lineup and 40 percent of their starting rotation on the disabled list at the same time – and that’s not to mention the two games they played without center fielder and leadoff man Kevin Pillar, who was suspended for using a homophobic slur against an opponent.

Even with four-time All-Star Russell Martin coming off the DL on Saturday, the nine Blue Jays who remain there have a combined 10 All-Star appearances, those belonging to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (five), third baseman Josh Donaldson (three), left-hander Francisco Liriano (one) and right-hander Aaron Sanchez (one). Lefty J.A. Happ, also on the disabled list, doesn’t have an all-star appearance, but he had a 20-win season in 2016.

All of them, however, could be back on the field in the next four weeks or so – which begs the question: Do the Blue Jays still stand a chance in the loaded American League East, or have they already played themselves out of it? Entering Tuesday, they held the second-worst record in the AL, at 19-26, and were in last place in the East.

“We’re not happy with where we’re at,” said Gibbons, who signed a three-year contract extension just before Opening Day. “But with everything we’ve been through, we’re not upset about it, either. We dug ourselves a pretty good hole, but we think there’s still time to get out of it. We could sure use some reinforcements.”

Most experts projected the Blue Jays, coming off back-to-back trips to the AL Championship Series, to be a playoff contender again in 2017, after they brought back the bulk of the team that swept Texas in the Division Series last fall, with the only major change being swapping in Kendrys Morales for Edwin Encarnacion at designated hitter.

But the injuries started almost immediately. Closer Roberto Osuna didn’t even make it to Opening Day, landing on the DL the day before the opener. Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, lasted just nine games before being lost to a strained calf. Sanchez, a 15-game winner in 2016, is already on his third trip to the DL.

Ten games into the season, the Blue Jays were 1-9 and already being eyeballed hungrily by opposing GMs, hoping the Jays would give up and start unloading veteran pieces. But that hasn’t happened, and somehow the Jays have played over .500, 18-17, since that awful 10-game start, including an 11-4 stretch from late-April to mid-May.

“I think we’ve done a great job of grinding it out without those (injured) guys,” veteran reliever Jason Grilli said. “We’ve managed to hover around to where, if we get them back, we can get super-hot and really get this thing going.”

The reinforcements are on their way. Tulowitzki (hamstring) and Donaldson (calf), who combined for 61 homers last year, could be back in a week or so. Liriano (shoulder) and Happ (elbow) could return in early June, along with outfielder Steve Pearce (calf).

That doesn’t mean the Blue Jays will be able to climb back into an AL East race in which the other four teams were all at .500 or better going into Tuesday’s games. But it means they aren’t quite ready to give up on 2017. We can’t rightly call the Blue Jays a good team at this point, but as long as they keep getting healthier, they are a dangerous one.

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