August 2006

Hairy Conditions

Eric Hinske couldn’t have put it better. As he sat in the visitor’s dugout inside the Metrodome and watched Minnesota’s Justin Morneau take batting practice with a set of fake sideburns attached to his head, Hinske shook his head.

"I guess when you hit around .400, you get your own sideburns give-away day," Hinske said.

That’s exactly what Thursday was: Joe Mauer Sideburns give-away day. Torii Hunter and Morneau were two of the Twins sporting Mauer’s trademark burns during the pregame workout.

Hinske and the other Blue Jays did have more important things to talk about, though. He and others dicussed with infield instructor and third base coach Brian Butterfield how the turf at the Metrodome plays and they talked about how easy it is to lose a fly ball in the air because of the white dome. Minnesota has quite the advantage playing at home. That’s easy to see just by looking at the Twins’ record: 39-15 at home versus 28-31 on the road.

Other news and notes: Justin Speier’s MRI on Wednesday showed there was no structural damage to his elbow. The injury only involves his forearm, which is good news. Still, I wouldn’t expect him back for another month or so. … Scott Downs will indeed start on Saturday. … Gustavo Chacin will make a fourth rehab start, this time with class-A Dunedin, on Monday. Then he’s scheduled to slide back into the rotation on Saturday.

Uh, oh: Minnesota’s rookie phenon, Francisco Liriano, received an MRI of his own on Thursday. His revealed a mild strain to the ulnar collateral ligament caused by weakness in his rotator cuff. There’s that ol’ UCL thing again. Sound familiar? That’s the same ligament that sidelined Chacin and A.J. Burnett for more than four months combined. That doesn’t sound like very good news for Twins fans.

On To Minnesota

Believe it or not, us beat writers DO get a day off every once in a while. That was the case for me today, when the Blue Jays beat the Orioles, 4-3, behind the efforts of "Doc" Halladay. I didn’t get to watch the game because I was busy playing catch up around the house. Part of my day was spent packing for the upcoming road trip.

I’m looking forward to heading to Minnesota. Not only will I be covering Toronto playing one of the hottest teams in baseball, but I have a few friends that live around Minneapolis. I still haven’t figured out how seven people I knew in college ended up in Minnesota — one one of them who now covers the Twins on a full-time basis.

Fortunately for Toronto, neither Johan Santana or Francisco Liriano will be pitching in this series. That’s good news, considering the Jays are 7.5 games back of the Twins in the AL Wild Card race. That’s still quite a considerable gap, but Toronto isn’t about to say it’s too big to overcome. I personally think that almost too much has to go right for the Jays to overtake three teams for the Wild Card, but I guess stranger things have happened in this game.

Some more good news on the Toronto front: Gustavo Chacin didn’t have any more issues in his third rehab start and will most likely rejoin the rotation after the off day on Monday. That means Toronto will have Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Ted Lilly, Shaun Marcum, and Chacin as its starting staff. I’ve been impressed with Marcum lately and hopefully Chacin can return to form quickly. That would help solve that spot, which has been plagued by a handful of inconsistent rookies.

One of those rooks is Francisco Rosario, who injured his lower back in his relief appearance on Tuesday. He was scheduled to maybe pitch Saturday in Minnesota, but now it looks like left-hander Scott Downs — another reliever — might be making a spot start instead. Rosario’s injury isn’t anything serious, but it seems like Toronto likes him more out of the bullpen than as a starter anyway.

Another side note: When Toronto placed reliever Justin Speier on the 15-day disabled list, it recalled right-hander Jason Frasor up from Triple-A. Apparently, Frasor wasn’t informed of exactly why he was being called up. He didn’t learn of Speier’s injury until after he arrived in Toronto. He found out when he heard the news on a TV broadcast. In 18 games at Triple-A, Frasor posted a 3.98 ERA. He struck out 33 in 20.1 innings for the SkyChiefs.

For those of you who are ESPN the Magazine readers, there is a funny picture of Jays pitcher Jeremy Accardo on p. 63 from when he was still with the Giants. Accardo — acquired in the deal that sent Shea Hillenbrand and Vinnie Chulk to SF — will help fill the setup role now that Speier is out.

Speier said he expects to miss around three weeks and said the injury involves the pronator muscle in his forearm. Now, I haven’t heard the results of the MRI yet, but I believe that muscle is attached to the elbow. I think three weeks would be optimistic for his return. I could`be wrong. Toronto surely will take extra precaution with Speier as they did with Burnett and Chacin, though.

Anyways, that’s all for right now. I have to finish stuffing my suitcase and then I need to get some rest. I’ll blog more once I get up to Minnesota. Stay tuned…

When Will The Hurting Stop?

I guess Toronto’s starting rotation can’t go one day without something going wrong. About a half hour before today’s game — which is in the fourth inning as I type — the Jays announced that Ted Lilly wasn’t going to be starting because of a sore neck. Like Toronto needed anyone else on the rotation to come down with the injury bug.

To Lilly’s credit, this is the first time he’s missed a start this year. He had one start pushed back a day in June because of a sore shoulder, but he hasn’t actually missed a turn in the rotation up until now. Even staff ace Roy Halladay (stiff forearm in April) missed one turn.

Brian Tallet hadn’t made a start since ’03 with the Indians, but he started in place of Lilly on Monday. Tallet isn’t considered a rookie any more, based on the criteria, but he’s pretty close. If he were a first-year pitcher, that’d be six Toronto has used as replacements this year (Dustin McGowan, Francisco Rosario, Shaun Marcum, Ty Taubenheim, and Casey Janssen are the others). And you wonder why the rotation hasn’t been able to last deep into games and has been inconsistent? All six of the pitchers — the rookies, plus Tallet — have worked out of the bullpen, too.

Hopefully Lilly’s injury isn’t anything that will keep him out for too long. It doesn’t seem to be the type of injury that would. I’m assuming he’ll be set to make his next start on Aug. 12 in Minnesota.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I led the notes off with Alex Rios’ recent struggles yesterday and he got two hits. I led the notes off with Reed Johnson today and he had hits through his first three at-bats. Any one have suggestions about who I should write about tomorrow? … I asked if Taubenheim might be getting called back up to Toronto recently and Gibbons said probably not until September call-ups. That’s for any of you die-hard Ty fans that were waiting to get an update. … Can you believe Gibbons robbed Tallet of a no-hitter? He pulled the lefty after he gave up no hits through 2 1/3 innings today. Where’s the love? I’m only kidding, obviously. I’m sure the Jays were thrilled to get that much out of him after he found he was going to be starting on such short notice.

Bengie Speaks His Mind

It sounds like Jays manager John Gibbons needs to sit down and discuss the catching situation with Bengie Molina and Gregg Zaun. That’s whats Molina said to me this morning, anyway. Molina doesn’t seem to understand why his playing time has suddenly decreased and he hasn’t been happy about it.

I tried to talk to Molina about the issue on Wednesday. I walked over to his locker, which was tucked behind a pole inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. I asked him if he had a few minutes and he said, "Not right now," with his head down. Considering that Molina wasn’t in uniform yet and he was in the starting lineup, I just figured it was poor timing on my part. It turns out that he wasn’t in the best mood.

Today, Bengie pulled me aside and apologized for not making time on Wednesday. He said he was upset and answering questions was the last thing he wanted to do when I went up to him. It was a much different story today. Now, don’t confuse Molina’s comments with the "Hillengate" saga that swept Toronto more than a week ago now. Bengie was quiet and calm through the 15-minute interview I had with him today and he wasn’t attacking Gibbons or GM J.P. Ricciardi. Molina also wasn’t knocking Zaun at all. He was merely expressing his frustration with his current situation.

Molina’s start on Wednesday was his only start in the past week, which includes six games. Gibbons said there wasn’t anything to it, but Molina seemed to feel differently. If there isn’t anything to it, Gibbons probably should fill Molina in on the reasoning. Likewise, Zaun hasn’t been told he’s going to get the majority of the playing time now, either. He’s started four games behind the plate this past week and Jason Phillips caught when Dustin McGowan started, but that was because they paired up many times in Triple-A.

One thing to look at, too, is that the Jays have only faced one lefty in the past week — Barry Zito — and that was the day Gibbons wanted Phillips to catch McGowan. Gibbons has liked to use Molina versus lefties and Zaun, who has more pop from the left side, against righties. That being said, Molina was still getting about two-thirds of the playing time when the season began.

Maybe this is all a coincidence — Molina not starting much during this current stretch. Maybe Gibbons really doesn’t have any ulterior motives. Whatever the truth may be, Molina seems to think the general opinion is that his defense has slipped, which is something he doesn’t think is true. All I can do as a reporter is look at the numbers and watch the games and I don’t think Molina has looked as good as he did a few years back with the Angels. Maybe it has to do with him not playing as regularly as he thought he would, maybe it has to do with learning a new pitching staff for the first time, maybe it has something to do with him not being particularly happy, or maybe it’s none or all of the above.

Maybe he’s right about still clocking 1.8 seconds on throws to second base. A lot of times, the success rate of throwing out baserunners has to do with the pitching staff. Zaun’s caught-stealing numbers aren’t great, either, but Molina used to throw out runners at an unbelievable pace when he was in Anaheim. One thing I do agree on with Molina is that not all of the passed balls he’s been charged with have been his fault. Take Lilly’s recent start in Oakland, for example. Lilly admitted that he crossed Molina up by throwing a fastball when the catcher was looking for a slider. Lilly took the blame — Molina got charged in the books. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Molina is the first to admit that Gibbons has been put in a tough position: He has two catchers who believe they should be the No. 1 option. One thing is for sure, if both Molina and Zaun remain unhappy with their situation, there’s a chance — a likely one, too — that Toronto will lose both catchers before next season. It sounds to me like the two catchers and Gibbons — a former catcher himself — need to discuss the issue and provide some clarity, at least among each other.

Better Late Than Never

It only took me 106 games into the season to start this blog. But, hey, is there a better time to start one than right after the trade deadline and heading into the stretch run for the playoffs? It seems like as good of a time as any to start the official baseball blog for this Blue Jays beat writer.

Since this is post No. 1, I’ll stick to introducing myself for now — something I did briefly in the first mailbag I wrote for bluejays.com during the offseason. For starters, I’m not exactly the oldest guy on the beat. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m in my first year covering the Jays for MLB.com at the age of 23.

I actually started as an intern for bluejays.com last season and had the opportunity to assume the full-time duties when the former Jays writer moved on to a different city. I graduated from Michigan State University and spent time working for a couple newspapers in Michigan. Just like Toronto’s Casey Janssen, I began last season with Class-A Lansing. He was on the mound every fifth day and I was up in the pressbox at Oldsmobile Park.

There are a few obstacles that come with being a young writer, but I’m sure I’ll talk about those from time to time on this blog. I’ll also spend time talking about life on the beat, life on the road, and maybe on life in general, as it applies to covering the team. Mostly, though, I plan to use this space to discuss issues around the Blue Jays. I’ll try to go beyond just the news content that you read in the articles I write for bluejays.com.

That’s about all I want to post for now. It’s 1:41 a.m. and I have to catch some sleep. Toronto lost an important game tonight at Yankee Stadium and A.J. Burnett continued on an inconsistent path. I’ll be closing the curtains to my hotel room in a minute to try to block out the lights in Times Square. And with this heat wave ripping through the Big Apple (and back home in Toronto, my wife informed me tonight), I made sure to put the AC on full blast.

The next time I post, I’ll begin breaking down my thoughts on Blue Jays baseball. For now, I’m just happy I finally got this blog running. Stay tuned for more…

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