April 2008

Of mouth guards and moundsmen

BOSTON – Beautiful day here in Boston. Enjoyed a nice five-mile run along the lovely Charles River this morning and a pleasant walk to the Fens this afternoon. I’ve received a handful of e-mail inquiries about the sudden use of mouthguards by Blue Jays pitchers Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum. Talked to Marcum today — he’s feeling much better after a bad bout with the flu — and he said it began in Spring Training.

A representative from somewhere in Canada visited Toronto’s spring site and explained that wearing a mouthguard can help align the jaw and also create added flexibility and range of motion. So, the M&M boys decided it was worth a shot and started wearing the mouthguards during their starts.

STAT OF THE DAY: Since 2002, Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay has thrown more complete games (32) than any other Major League pitcher and more than eight big-league teams have as a whole. Since ’02, the Dodgers (31), Phillies (31), Rays (30), Red Sox (29), Mets (29), Reds (28), Braves (26) and Pirates (23) have had fewer CGs than the good doctor.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Do you see a lack of effort? So you see anybody loafing? That’s when you run into trouble. The effort’s there. The effort has always been there. You get into trouble when you start pointing fingers. Things can go from bad to worse in a hurry that way.” –Jays manager John Gibbons, on his team’s recent struggles

RYAN UPDATE: Gibbons noted that closer B.J. Ryan might be able to be used on consecutive days “in the next couple weeks.” Ryan, who is currenly only permitted to throw every other day, will need to pass the one-year anniversary (May 10) of his left-elbow Tommy John surgery before being considered in back-to-back games.

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (11-16) at BOSTON (16-12)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Fenway Park

BLUE JAYS
Alex Rios, RF
David Eckstein, SS
Scott Rolen, 3B
Matt Stairs, DH
Vernon Wells, CF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Aaron Hill, 2B
Adam Lind, LF
Gregg Zaun, C

PITCHING: RHP Dustin McGowan

RED SOX
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
Kevin Youkilis, 1B
David Ortiz, DH
Manny Ramirez, LF
Mike Lowell, 3B
Brandon Moss, RF
Jason Varitek, C
Coco Crisp, CF
Julio Lugo, SS

PITCHING: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka

Gibby's Grandma gets right to the point

BOSTON — During the Blue Jays’ off-day on Monday, manager John Gibbons took some time to head about a half-hour north of Boston to visit with his 96-year-old grandmother, Mary Boyson. Knowing her grandson’s team just endured a rough six-game losing streak, Boyson got right to the point.

“She’s still pretty sharp,” Gibbons said with a smile. “She said, ‘What the hell’s going wrong with your team?’ I said, ‘Good question.’ She said, ‘Are you going to get fired?’ I said, ‘That’s another good question.’ I didn’t expect her to hammer me. I thought she might give me a hug or something.”

Gibbons is a Texan through and through, but he does have a little Boston blood flowing through his veins. Both of Gibbons’ parents lived in Beverly — not too far from the hub of Red Sox Nation. It just so happens that Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi — a Minor League roomie of Gibby’s in their days in the Mets farm system — also lives in Worcester, Mass.

“New England blood, man. I don’t tell anybody that, though,” Gibbons joked. “That’s the only reason J.P. hired me.”

Gibby also joked that Grandma Boyson advised him to shake up his lineup, which featured David Eckstein in the No. 2 hole and Aaron Hill bumped to the No. 5 hole for the opener in Boston. IF there’s a series opener tonight, that is. It’s drizzling and the tarp’s on the field about an hour before game time here, but the forecast would seem to indicate that they’ll get this game in.

The cramped visitor’s clubhouse is not the place a team battling a nasty flu bug would want to be and Toronto sent another victim back to the team hotel today. Shaun Marcum  — scheduled to start on Friday at home against Chicago — is the latest to fall prey to the contagious bug.

Gibbons also noted that left-handed reliever Scott Downs was available out of the bullpen on Tuesday, if needed. Downs has been battling some minor soreness in his throwing shoulder for the past few days, but Gibbons said the pitcher was feeling better. A trip to the disabled list doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

On another note, I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and I would advise others to do the same. It was a fantastic read and a book I struggled to put down until I was finished. I picked it up after thoroughly enjoying McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which reads like a screenplay for the film. I’ve since moved on to Scott Smith’s The Ruins and blazed through half the novel yesterday, thanks to lengthy delays at the airport.

Anyway, here are…

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (10-15) at BOSTON (15-12)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Fenway Park

BLUE JAYS
Alex Rios, RF
David Eckstein, SS
Scott Rolen, 3B
Vernon Wells, CF
Aaron Hill, 2B
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Shannon Stewart, DH
Adam Lind, LF
Gregg Zaun, C

PITCHING: RHP Roy Halladay

RED SOX
Coco Crisp, CF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH
Manny Ramirez, LF
Kevin Youkilis, 1B
Mike Lowell, 3B
J.D. Drew, RF
Jason Varitek, C
Julio Lugo, SS

PITCHING: LHP Jon Lester

Skipping K.C.

TORONTO — I’m off for the next few days, handing off the Blue Jays’ beat duties to a fill-in down in Kansas City. After that lousy display of baseball in Orlando, I don’t mind having a few days off, though I am looking forward to seeing Scott Rolen finally in Toronto’s lineup.

I’ll be back on the road when the Jays head to Boston and I’ll pick up the blogging from there. I have a hunch that Adam Lind will have returned well before then, maybe even tonight in K.C. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m about to head out for dinner — just didn’t want you guys wondering where the pregame bloggage was.

One thing before I sign off, though: Someone in the last post commented with a question about my doing a live in-game Q&A last season. I’ll probably do one or two of these this year, depending on my schedule. I’ll post well in advance when I plan on doing this so you all can be sure to hop on and dish questions.

Catch you all from Beantown. Stay tuned for more…

Rolen back with the Jays

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Scott Rolen was in uniform and in the clubhouse on Thursday afternoon, but he hasn’t been activated from the 15-day disabled list just yet. That step will come after the game, when manager John Gibbons will likely tell either Joe Inglett or Robinzon Diaz that it’s been real, clearing room on the roster.

Rolen went 0-for-9 with an error at third base in his three rehab stints with Class A Dunedin and joked that if the Dunedin Jays are hoping to contend for that Florida State League title, the team’s probably happy to get rid of him. Rolen said “it’s time to play,” meaning, tenderness in his right middle finger or not, he’s coming off the DL now, and he’ll be on the team’s charter to Kansas City and able to play tomorrow.

“We asked him to tell us when he felt ready,” Gibbons said. “We trust what he tells us.”

Alex Rios and Lyle Overbay are back in the lineup after missing last night’s game with the flu and a bum ankle, respectively. Rios looked and felt much better today. Adam Lind, who will probably be up with the club sooner than later, wasn’t at the ball yard. The Mighty Lind watch continues.

Also, to anyone criticizing Gibbons for leaving Halladay in for three complete games in a row — like the fellas on Baseball Tonight were doing last night — there’s no argument to be made there. Doc is second in the Majors with 13.07 pitchers per inning and he’s averaged just over 111 pitches over his last three starts — nothing out of the ordinary.

“He hasn’t been abused,” Gibbons said.

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (10-12) at TAMPA BAY (10-11)
at 7:10 p.m. ET at Disney’s Wide World of Sports

JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Aaron Hill, 2B
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Matt Stairs, DH
Shannon Stewart, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Gregg Zaun, C
Marco Scutaro, 3B

PITCHING: RHP Dustin McGowan

RAYS
Akinori Iwamura, 2B
Carl Crawford, LF
B.J. Upton, CF
Carlos Pena, 1B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Eric Hinske, DH
Gabe Gross, RF
Dioner Navarro, C
Jason Bartlett, SS

PITCHING: RHP Andy Sonnanstine

Infield of dreams?

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Not so much. Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay — out with a sore right ankle — as well as the Rays’ Eric Hinske, who manned first on Tuesday, both had negative comments about the field conditions at the Wide World of Sports Complex.

Overbay had one “routine” grounder bounced to him on Tuesday night that he said “took a right turn,” hindering him from gloving the ball. Hinske’s blunder in the second inning on Tuesday was also a result of a strange hop. The problem is there isn’t a team that uses this park regularly after Spring Training, so it likely doesn’t get the same daily treatment as a big-league park.

“Not to bash them or anything,” Overbay said. “But I just have a hard time thinking that the Braves have Spring Training here and play on that kind of field. I know they play a lot of games here after Spring Training, so it’s frustrating.

“Routine ground balls, I mean, that ball took a right turn and went straight up. That ball would’ve hit me right in my face if it didn’t [turn], and that’s a routine ground ball. That’s not a hard hit ball.”

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons also isn’t a big fan of playing in this 9,500-seat ballpark, which drew only 8,269 on Tuesday night (paid attendance anyway). The Jays understand why the Rays would want to hold games here, but that doesn’t mean Toronto has to be a big fan of the idea.

“I didn’t like the feel out there last night,” Gibbons said. “Plus, there were some empty seats out there yesterday. You can see their idea, you know, drawing up some interest — it makes sense.”

Overbay had X-rays on his right ankle on Tuesday night, but the results came back negative. Alex Rios was out of the lineup for the second straight game — this time due to flu-like symptoms. I caught a glimpse of Rios laying on a training table before the game and, yeah, dude looked to be in real rough shape.

On another note, Gibbons said that Jesse Litsch shouldn’t be looking over his shoulder for now, even though the young righty has struggled out of the gates. Now, if Litsch’s woes persist for another 3-5 outings? “That’s a long way down the road. That’s a month from now,” was all Gibby would offer. Oh, and Josh Banks? Probably 7th or 8th on the rotation depth chart? Claimed off waiver by the Padres.

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (10-11) at TAMPA BAY (9-11)
at 7:10 p.m. ET at Disney’s Wide World of Sports

JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Shannon Stewart, LF
Aaron Hill, 2B
Vernon Wells, CF
Matt Stairs, RF
Rod Barajas, 1B
Gregg Zaun, C
Robinzon Diaz, DH
Joe Inglett, 3B

PITCHING: RHP Roy Halladay

RAYS
Akinori Iwamura, 2B
Carl Crawford, LF
B.J. Upton, CF
Carlos Pena, 1B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Eric Hinske, RF
Jonny Gomes, DH
Dioner Navarro, C
Jason Bartlett, SS

PITCHING: RHP Jason Hammel

Game 1 of The Disney World Series

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In the land where dreams come true, I finally enjoyed my first smooth day of travel of the 2008 baseball season. No cancelled flights. Bumped up to first class. Some nice shut-eye on the journey. No missed connections. And fireworks lighting up the Orlando sky when I landed last night.

Some free advice: if you want to get through customs quickly without any issues, please refrain from cussing out the border officials. There was a family ahead of me that was taking a prolonged amount of time to get through and a guard asked them to step aside, at which point one girl in the group yelled a rather unpleasant and unproductive message at said guard. They were all promptly escorted out of the airport. Me? No problemo…

Here at the Wide World of Sports, it’s sunny skies. No Alex Rios in the lineup today — just a day off, according to manager John Gibbons. Gibby also noted that Rays starter James Shields has handled Rios well in the past, so it made sense to start Lexi on the bench. So Matt Stairs moves into the No. 3 hole and Joe Inglett mans right for the second straight game.

Gibby also noted that Scott Rolen, who missed his scheduled Minor League rehab appearance yesterday due to the flu, is expected to be back with the Jays before the end of this road trip. That’s been the assumption, but Gibby made that clear today. You’ll all be happy to know that Adam Lind (out recently with a stiff neck) got back into a game yesterday and went 2-for-4 with an RBI.

Time to do some work and grab me some eats, so here are…

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (10-10) at TAMPA BAY (8-11)
at 7:10 p.m. ET at Disney’s Wide World of Sports

JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Aaron Hill, 2B
Matt Stairs, DH
Vernon Wells, CF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Shannon Stewart, LF
Gregg Zaun, C
Marco Scutaro, 3B
Joe Inglett, RF

PITCHING: RHP Jesse Litsch

RAYS
Akinori Iwamura, 2B
Carl Crawford,
B.J. Upton, CF
Carlos Pena, DH
Evan Longoria, 3B
Eric Hinske, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Nathan Haynes, RF
Jason Bartlett, SS

PITCHING: RHP James Shields

I'm going to Disney World!

TORONTO — I showed up at the ball yard to make sure chaos wasn’t going to break out this morning — after this past weekend, who knows what’s next for this team? — but I’m not staying for the game. I have a flight to Orlando to catch. I’m going to the Disney World Series!

OK, so it’s not really all that exciting. It’s a small park the Braves use for Spring Training and the pressbox ain’t exactly up to par in relation to the big-league ballparks. And I highly doubt I’ll have any time to hit up Disney — not that I’d want to without Mrs. Bastian or some nieces or nephews in tow.

I am looking forward to getting in some weather where a jacket isn’t needed, though. Unlike today, which is a little too chilly to have this dome open, if you ask me. So we’re in Day 3 of no Frank Thomas in the lineup and so far the Jays are 2-0. Coincidence? Most definitely. But this past weekend could very well hold some importance later in the year.

As for today, Robinzon Diaz is up with the club and — newsflash — he’s excited to be here. He’s likely holding down the fort until Adam Lind (stiff neck) is ready to rejoin the Jays. I doubt Diaz will see much action at the plate. Perhaps he’ll see some time at third base, who knows? Third baseman Scott Rolen could be back before next weekend.

Jays center fielder Vernon Wells isn’t in the lineup, though he hasn’t been benched indefinitely and his release papers aren’t being printed up. Nope, he’s just being given your typical day off. Nothing more there. With Wells out, Alex Rios is in center, Shannon Stewart is in left and…well, why don’t I just do it this way…

Today’s lineups:

DETROIT (6-13) at TORONTO (10-9)
at 12:37 p.m. ET at the Rogers Centre

TIGERS
Clete Thomas, CF
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Carlos Guillen, DH
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Miguel Cabrera, 1B
Jacques Jones, LF
Edgar Renteria, SS
Ryan Raburn, 2B
Brandon Inge, 3B

PITCHING: RHP Armando Galarraga

BLUE JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Shannon Stewart, LF
Aaron Hill, 2B
Alex Rios, CF
Matt Stairs, DH
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Marco Scutaro, 3B
Gregg Zaun, C
Joe Inglett, RF

PITCHING: RHP Shaun Marcum

He Gone: Thomas released

TORONTO — Not much time to blog here, but let’s just say I called it last night. Frank Thomas was granted his unconditional release this morning by the Blue Jays. No subsequent move for now — Adam Lind is the long-term option, but he’s fighting a stiff neck at the moment.

Thomas met with GM J.P. Ricciardi this morning and they came to a mutual agreement on releasing the veteran designated hitter, according to Ricciardi. Thomas was long gone, so no way to get his side of the story. You’ll see Matt Stairs and Rod Barajas DHing more now and Lind can split time in left with Shannon Stewart when he comes up at some point.

Scott Rolen was scheduled to make a rehab appearance with Class A Dunedin today as well. He’s down to play three games down there and then Ricciardi said the team will reevaluate his status. Looks like Rolen could be back here some time next week. That’s a best-case scenario, of course.

More later…

Today’s lineups:

DETROIT (6-12) at TORONTO (9-9)
at 1:07 p.m. ET at the Rogers Centre

TIGERS
Clete Thomas, CF
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Carlos Guillen, DH
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Miguel Cabrera, 1B
Jacques Jones, LF
Edgar Renteria, SS
Ryan Raburn, 2B
Brandon Inge, 3B

PITCHING: LHP Nate Robetson

BLUE JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Aaron Hills, 2B
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Rod Barajas, DH
Marco Scutaro, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Gregg Zaun, C
John McDonald, 3B

PITCHING: RHP A.J. Burnett

Big Hurt moved to the bench

TORONTO — Blue Jays manager John Gibbons won’t come out and say it, but Frank Thomas will. Being left out of the starting lineup for Saturday’s game isn’t a one-time deal for Thomas. He’s been told that he could be on the bench for a while.

“Basically, I’ve been told that I’m not going to be in that lineup,” Thomas told MLB.com on Saturday. “Gibby told me that this morning. I see it as something else is going on. We’ll see how that plays out.

“You know what’s going on and I know what’s going on. We’ll see how it plays out. I’m just a little frustrated right now. There are some things going on around here this year that I haven’t been happy about.”

Thomas was likely referring to his contract situation. If he reaches 304 more plate appearances this season, he has a $10 million option for 2009 that will vest. Thomas’ struggles may very be just another slow start, but you can bet Toronto’s higher ups are a little wary with that option hanging over their heads.

There are some within Toronto’s organization who have expressed concern that this could be a sign of Thomas being in decline production wise. Recently, he’s started crouching more in his stance, which could indicate that he’s trying to cheat some with his swing in order to catch up to pitches. Thomas downplayed any significance with the stance change.

“That’s nothing new,” he said. “Some days I’m up and some days I’m down. That’s just the way I do things.”

UPDATE — 6:13 p.m. ET: Just wrapping up here at the ball yard and thought I’d add a postgame update on the Thomas situation. I can neither confirm nor deny that Thomas was sitting on Toronto’s bench on Saturday, but no one saw him there. One place he definitely wasn’t was on the field with the team, shaking hands after the game. That’s not a good move. Looking at the situation, which has potential to become a huge distraction for a team that wants to contend, Thomas may be released in the near future. Now, that’s complete speculation on my part, but it would rid the Jays of having to worry about that $10 million option for 2009, which is something the team would probably want to avoid having to pick up. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few days. I will say this: Thomas is a Hall of Famer, hands down. He’s also been one of my favorite players I’ve ever covered as a reporter. I am slightly bias, through, since I grew up in Chicago when he was pretty much the Michael Jordan of baseball. Still, his production is declining. Yes, there’s a track record there for the slow starts, but it’s looked more and more this year like he’s been struggling to catch up to pitches. If this year winds up being his last one in the bigs, he’s had a tremendous career.

Today’s lineups:

DETROIT (6-11) at TORONTO (8-9)
at 1:07 p.m. ET at the Rogers Centre

TIGERS
Clete Thomas, CF
Jacques Jones, LF
Gary Sheffield, DH
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Carlos Guillen, 1B
Edgar Renteria, SS
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Ryan Raburn, 2B

PITCHING: RHP Jeremy Bonderman

BLUE JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Aaron Hills, 2B
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Matt Stairs, DH
Rod Barajas, C
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Marco Scutaro, 3B
*Joe Inglett, LF

PITCHING: RHP Dustin McGowan

*Shannon Stewart was a late scratch

The short straw

TORONTO — That’s what David Purcey drew for his first Major League start for the Blue Jays. The 6-foot-5 left-hander has been given the task of taking on a sleeping giant in the Detroit Tigers, who boast one of the more intimidating lineups in the game.

Gibbons chuckled and mustered an “I don’t know” when asked if he’d rather have a pitcher making his debut against a tough team like Detroit or against perhaps a lesser opponent. It’s definitely a good test for Purcey, but it certainly could be a tall task, too.

“They’re due to explode,” Gibbons said about the struggling Tigers. “You’ve got to pitch well. You’ve got to hold them in check a little bit and you’ve got to score your share of runs. You go into this series figuring that they’re going to put some runs on the board, so you’ve got to do the same thing.

“It’s a special day for him,” he added about Purcey. “You want him to enjoy it, because you only get that debut one time. But it’s going to be a big test. They’re predominantly a right-handed hitting team and have been one of the biggest run producers in the game for the last five or six years. He’s definitely got to pitch. I’m sure they like hard-throwing lefties.”

It’ll be one and done for Mr. Purcey, too, even if he throws a no-hitter. The Jays are expected to make a roster move after the game to add a right-handed reliever to the bullpen. It’s looking like Shawn Camp may be the one to get the call. On Thursday, Camp picked up his fourth save of the year for Triple-A Syracuse and he has worked 10 shutout innings with 13 strikeouts and no walks.

Out of the lineup today is first baseman Lyle Overbay, who has hit just two homers in 277 at-bats since breaking his right hand on June 3 last year. Overbay has no homers in 16 games and 59 ABs this season. Everyone says the hand is no longer an issue, but the power drop-off has been considerable. Overbay hit 22 homers in ’06 and had 8 through 55 games before breaking his hand in ’07.

Now, the Jays don’t necessarily need Overbay to be a home-run hitter, but Toronto could certainly benefit from getting 15-20 from his left-handed bat, especially with question marks existing throughout the lineup. Homers aside, Overbay only has two doubles so far this year, too. Then again, he only had two April doubles in ’06 and finished with 46.

STAT OF THE DAY: Last night, Roy Halladay threw a complete game — nothing out of the ordinary there. No Blue Jays outfieders recorded a putout during his nine-inning effort, though. It was the first time since Aug. 19, 1997 (Detroit’s Willie Blair) that a pitcher turned a complete game with no outfield putouts.

Today’s lineups:

DETROIT (5-11) at TORONTO (8-8)
at 7:07 p.m. ET at the Rogers Centre

TIGERS
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Placido Polanco, 2B
Gary Sheffield, DH
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Carlos Guillen, 1B
Edgar Renteria, SS
Marcus Thames, LF
Brandon Inge, CF

PITCHING: LHP Kenny Rogers

BLUE JAYS
Shannon Stewart, LF
Aaron Hills, 2B
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Frank Thomas, DH
Rod Barajas, 1B
Marco Scutaro, 3B
Gregg Zaun, C
John McDonald, SS

PITCHING: LHP David Purcey

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