ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - On Tuesday afternoon, prior to the Blue Jays' middle game of a three-game set with the Rays, TSN.ca sat down with manager John Gibbons to discuss the season to date.
The following is the transcript of the 15-minute discussion:
TSN.ca: John, here we are on the eve of the return of Jose Reyes. I take you back to the night that it happened, you're reclined in your seat, we're all standing around you and you said, quote, "It's a killer." But depending on tonight's result, you're either going to be four games above or two games above in a 66-game stretch without Jose Reyes. Your team has gotten through it and of course they were just on a terrific 11-game winning streak. How do you feel they pulled it off?
GIBBONS: Well, Scott, that seems like a long time ago and at the time I said that it was definitely accurate. But I tip my hat to the guys, our players out there in the room for holding tough. It wasn't easy. There's no doubt these last couple of weeks have definitely put us in a better position. But you know what, that group out there, they never panicked. They continued to play the right way, we weren't always good but they approached it the right way. We hung around. Nobody could knock us out. With this last two weeks we've crawled right back in this thing. There's a long way to go but it's a good feeling that Jose's coming back. Even at the time, throughout spring training, the way we kind of looked at the way the team was built, our depth at different positions, he was really the one guy we thought we couldn't afford to lose and sure enough. But he'll be coming back riding that white horse and we'll be glad to have him.
TSN.ca: Munenori Kawasaki was a big part of this and I think you know he's become a bit of a cult figure in Toronto. Looking at the statistics, this is a replacement player, because that's what he is, playing above replacement level. Some of those sabermetrics you're so big into…
GIBBONS: Spell that.
TSN.ca: I'm not even going to try. But they'll tell you that. I would have to think that you're pleasantly surprised and I know Alex is surprised as well because he openly mused about potentially having to make a deal. Yet Kawasaki came in and he held the fort.
GIBBONS: Yeah, Kawasaki did a tremendous job for us, he really did. He came out of nowhere, we didn't know what to expect. Early on, Alex was in the wires trying to acquire somebody but they had us in a vulnerable spot because they knew we were desperate. The asking price for some of the guys we were looking at was way too steep and so we decided Kawasaki was doing such a good job for us, throw him out there and let him do his thing. He's done a tremendous job, he really has, he just brings, you look at his statistics, they're not great, overwhelming statistics by any means but the little things he adds, the energy, the execution of the little things in baseball, the way he busts his butt on everything he does out there, things like that. The way he uplifts a team, you really can't calculate just how important that was to us. I tip my hat to the guy but there's no question, getting Reyes back, one of the better players in the game, he's been on rehab for a couple of weeks and everybody seems to think he's ready to go so we'll definitely welcome him back with open arms that's for sure.
TSN.ca: There were fans who were frustrated earlier on in the season and there were fans who were over the moon the other day as you were on this near-historic franchise winning streak. Can you talk a little bit, for fans who are new to the game or maybe have rode this wave and struggled with it night in, night out, about the need over the course of an extremely long season to keep an even keel. You're not as good as an 11-game win streak but you're not as bad as dropping 21 of your first 31 games.
GIBBONS: Yeah, Scott, that's hard to do. This game's an emotional rollercoaster not only for us guys involved here in this room but for our fan base out there. Coming into the season with expectations the way they were we wanted to get off to a great start. It didn't happen. Baseball is a long season, there's no doubt about that and when you get off to a slow start, when things are built up, it can become overwhelming. We all understand their frustrations because there were more frustrations in this room than probably out there. But, you know, our fans have been great, they've stuck by us, they've shown up to our games at home and they've been behind us. That's been a big part of it, especially on this late run. It proves, you know in Toronto there, you win and you put a good team on the field and they'll show up. It's like anywhere else, people want to see a winner. That's the key. Now that the streak is over we've got to continue to play very good baseball. We've climbed back in this thing but there's not a whole lot of room for error. We need to continue to play steady baseball. Our division is very good, it's up for grabs, everybody beats up on everybody else, so we have to maintain some kind of consistency.
TSN.ca: Injuries have played a factor and it's still going to be a while before you get to put that left side of the infield that you thought you were going to be able to at the start of the year, out there together. Brett Lawrie is still a while off but it seems like you have, one through 25, down in the bullpen, the rotation is coming together, left-handed lineups, right-handed lineups, seem to have found roles for all of your players. How important has that been and did it take you longer or maybe a shorter period of time than you thought it would?
GIBBONS: Well, yeah, we've kind of settled in to how we're going to run things now. Players know against the lefties these guys are going to play; against the righties these guys are going to play. That did take a while to develop simply because when Reyes went down he was a mainstay in there and we kind of worked around him. You know, Lindy, at the start of the season he was in a platoon role and now he's a regular. There were times we do the same thing with Colby. There will be certain nights against certain lefties they've had trouble with those guys probably will sit. It did take a while to develop because when we lost Reyes, you put Kawasaki at short and you give him a chance to hit but as time went on he struggled against left-handers so we put Izturis in and let him play there to get DeRosa more at bats. It's really kind of evolved and those guys are comfortable with those roles and been very productive. Everything has kind of revolved around what happened to Reyes and the fact that he was out and of course when Brett went down that opened up some more spots where we had to do some more mixing and matching, those kind of things. I really like the way they've been playing and good or bad, one thing you can count on with this team, this group of guys out there, they show up everyday, they lay it on the field and that's really all you can ask.
TSN.ca: Brett is so young and intense. I remember asking Mark DeRosa what Brett needs to do when it is that he does get back. He told me Lawrie needs to relax. If you could say one thing to Brett upon his return to help him out, what would that be?
TSN.ca: I opened that door for you but maybe that's it, right, because he takes his craft seriously and he was struggling there after the injury in spring training.
GIBBONS: Yeah but that's the key. You can say that all you want but that takes time, through experience, getting comfortable, being productive at this level, you know what I can do this on a daily basis at this level, knowing you know what, I belong. It takes guys a while. He's been up here the last couple of years but it's not unheard of that it takes a few years for guys to finally settle in. The sky's the limit for Brett. Nobody plays the game harder, you know nobody cares more. He'll run through a wall for you and he wants to win. In a lot of ways you wish there were more guys in this profession to be honest with you. Everybody always says and it's the truth, you'd rather have a guy with that kind of intensity that plays that way because he can back down a little bit. It's tough to get the kind of guy that's dead, and just kind of lackluster, it's tough to rub those guys up. It's usually not in them. In due time, with a little more experience, I think Brett will settle in and he will relax more. That's the key because the sport of baseball is so much different than the other sports. In other sports the harder you try, sometimes the better you get because you can run harder, you can block harder, you can hit some guys harder, that's just the nature of the game. Baseball is a slow moving game and sometimes, different guys' personalities, it's tough for them to relax but usually over time with a little success that usually takes place.
TSN.ca: Got to ask you about your bullpen. They've been unbelievable. I think they've got a sub-1.00 ERA in the last two weeks. Brett Cecil's retired 40-plus batters without allowing a hit. Casey Janssen has just the one blown save all season. As you slotted things out in spring training to where we are now, did you foresee each guy falling into the role that he is now in and just a general comment on their performance because they've been used a lot and they've been consistently excellent.
GIBBONS: Yeah, Scott, it's a special bunch down there, a really talented group. That's kind of evolved too, you know earlier in the season we were struggling in our rotation, those guys were getting used an awful lot. Everything's kind of balanced out lately with the results we've been getting out of our rotation. All those guys are very well rested. A lot of times you see the results because of that. There's a group out there that you want to go to with leads and we're able to do that. Plus our depth is so strong out there now that we feel confident bringing any of them in at any time and that's a luxury. Most teams can't do that. We've been a little banged up there, you know with Janssen we monitor him but he seems to be turning the corner on that. Darren Oliver went down for an extended period of time there. Sergio Santos. So we've gone through some changes. I think Cecil's been off the charts and it couldn't happen to a better guy. Delabar, everybody knew what he was. I think in a lot of ways when we really took off is when Wagner came on board. It was at the time that we were putting Esmil Rogers in the rotation. Wagner came along and was a guy who could get a tough right-hander out in a key spot late in the game and that really has added a lot to our team. Of course Loupy is the swing guy out there. He can pitch multiple innings or he can come in and get a big out for you, things like that. We have a lot of different options down there, a lot of different combinations we can attack you with. The key still lies in the rotation getting you deep enough into the game and giving you a chance to win with a lead or a tie or something like that or at least in a close game you're down a run or two and those guys can hold you right there and give you a chance to win.
TSN.ca: The schedule is the schedule and you can't change it. But there are teams that get to beat up on the Houston Astros or the Seattle Mariners a lot more than American League East teams can. You play four other quality teams 18 or 19 times each and they would say the same thing. Do you concern yourself with the fact that, I mean other than winning more than you lose, hey man we've got to go through the grind here in the next three months. Almost every night you're playing a tough team home or road.
GIBBONS: Well this division's always been that way, top to bottom. I remember in my first go around here when the Yankees and the Red Sox were the top two teams in all of baseball with the star power and stuff like that. It's kind of changed a little bit but the balance in how tough the division is is still the same. At the major league level all the teams are good. Some teams are stronger than others, no doubt about that, but on any given night if you get a well pitched outing that team has the chance to win regardless of what their record is. The thing about our division, you look, everybody's over .500 at this point. It's definitely a grind. It's almost like the game is played a little different. This division has become known as a grinding division and I think the Yankees and the Red Sox kind of set that tone years ago where they grind out at bats. They make you use your bullpen. You go to a three, four-game series, you're using everybody damn near everyday, that's just the way the games are played. They're long, drawn out games. Something that I don't think that's talked about much is that in our division all the ballparks we play in are home run hitting parks. A lead's never safe and you're never really out of a game. You get a couple of guys on and a home run gets you right back in it and vice versa. That, in a lot of ways, is what makes it so grueling. You've got some parks where a lazy fly ball is a home run. You're sitting over there and you've got to be conscious of that. In some parks a guy may smoke a ball but it may get to the gap or may one hop the wall. A home run can kill you but a double doesn't. In our division that seems to be the way it is. There are a lot of factors and it's not easy. The team that comes out of this division has definitely earned it, that's for sure.