KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Maybe this Blue Jays' season will play out like a classic Hollywood sports movie script. A team with high expectations faces early adversity but ultimately talent, heart and clutch performances propel the club to success.
The starting pitching, a vaunted rotation on paper, is contributing with numbers worthy of a low-budget horror flick.
Get this: Toronto's starters have thrown 42 2/3 innings in nine games (4.74 innings per start;) allowed 36 earned runs in that span (for a 7.59 ERA) and the last to make it in to the sixth inning was J.A. Happ in his last start six days ago.
"Obviously we've gone through a bit of a rut here early on," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "Kind of unexpected but still it's early and you know, I think overall, the starters know what they need to do. I'm sure they're not happy with how things have gone so far."
The second time through the rotation, not including Happ's start Friday night against the Royals, the quartet of R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson have allowed 23 earned runs in 14 combined innings (14.79 ERA.)
The bullpen, reduced to seven when outfielder Casper Wells joined the team and reliever Edgar Gonzalez was outrighted to Buffalo on Friday, has been taxed to the tune of 38 1/3 innings in just nine games this season.
The Blue Jays have allowed nine first-inning runs, at least one in four-straight games before Friday, and 19 runs in the first two innings combined. Walker says better results early in games are crucial.
"Ultimately those first two, three, four innings, to put up zeroes puts us in a good position and I think we'll start settling down," he said. "I think you'll see that on a more consistent basis."
What gives Walker such confidence when recent evidence is lacking?
"Just based on history and past performance, what they've done in the past and what they bring to the table and the stuff that we've seen in spring training out of a few of the guys," said Walker. "Their side sessions have been solid and so I think there are a lot of positives and it's just a matter of getting into a little bit of a groove where those starting pitchers can feed off each other and carry it from one start to the next."
R.A. Dickey threw his in-between-starts bullpen session in cold, misty Detroit but reported that he was pleased with his work. Dickey broke a fingernail during the first inning of his troubled start against Boston, problematic for a knuckleball pitcher, but says he's fine. He will pitch on Saturday against Royals' ace and long-time Blue Jays nemesis James Shields.
Josh Johnson, who allowed six runs in 1 1/3 innings in Detroit on Thursday, had been pleased with his side session prior to his start against the Tigers. But in near-freezing temperatures and with a misty rain falling, Johnson worked ahead of hitters but couldn't command either his slider or curveball to put them away.
"I'm not going to make excuses for him and I know (Doug) Fister pitched well enough to get through that game, but it was a tough outing," said Walker. "I think when you have long innings and your pitch count gets up in a game like that (Thursday,) it's tough to get the feel for the ball. He won't tell you but he definitely didn't have a good feel for his slider (Thursday) and the grip on the ball. It was a battle but I think it will be there next start. It's been there in side sessions, we've seen good breaking stuff from him this spring training."
Exacerbating matters has been poor infield defence. The Blue Jays have made eight errors, a high number early in the season, but more often they've been plagued by the inability to complete makeable plays. Someone like Mark Buehrle, who isn't overpowering and therefore pitches to contact, will inevitably struggle if his infielders provide below-average defence.
"They've been through some tough times before, no doubt, it's just a few of them at the same time, right now, to start the season," said Walker. "I think they know what they need to do, they've been around the block, so to speak, and I think that as we get into the next two or three weeks, you're going to see a different starting rotation."
The Blue Jays are counting on it.
So are Blue Jays' fans, who weren't expecting this early season plot twist.