BOSTON - Pitching. Defence. Culture.
Those are the three words which continue to be brought up in various conversations with players, both in formal and informal settings, around this American League Championship Series.
Jonny Gomes, a member of the 2008 Rays club that emerged from the abyss to gain a spot in that season's World Series and who's since played on contending teams in Cincinnati and Oakland before landing in Boston, has seen similar acts play out in different cities.
“This is my fourth division title and my fourth team,” said Gomes. “They're all very similar. We pitch. We play defence. We play together. We situational hit. We create an identity and win and lose with that identity.
“You've got to have some guys on your team that will nip in the bud in April, in June, in July, when things roll, stop it now. You've got to get out of the valley, get back up versus letting it play, riding it out.”
Spending much of the last 48 hours around Fenway Park, in this atmosphere, around two successful organizations with, for the most part, annual expectations of excellence, it's become clearer just how far away the 2013 Blue Jays were from being a playoff-calibre ballclub.
It wasn't too long ago, prior to the end of the regular season, that veteran Mark DeRosa shared similar thoughts to Gomes'. He would know, having come up in the winning Braves organization, followed by success with the Rangers, Cubs, Cardinals, Giants and Nationals.
“I always go back to the first two weeks of the season,” DeRosa told TSN.ca from the visitor's dugout, fittingly at Fenway Park, on September 20. “We got off so slow; just put ourselves in such a pessimistic-type attitude where we were expecting things to go wrong. It's just been the tale of many weeks for this team. It's had its moments of playing really great baseball and taking it to some of the best teams and best pitchers in the game and then we've had moments where we've rolled out there and done a lot of things fundamentally wrong and made mental errors that have cost us.”
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has identified the need for starting pitching, constantly reminding that no team stands a chance to contend when its rotation's ERA ranks second-worst in baseball (4.81,) better only than the dreadful Minnesota Twins and worse than the Houston Astros, essentially a Triple-A-calibre baseball team.
He's right. Nobody could have, or would have, predicted the respective demises of Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson to injury. But those two were pitching in April. So were R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ and, as DeRosa alluded to, the Jays got off to a terrible start that set the tone for a terrible season.
Nobody cried in Boston when Clay Buchholz missed three months with a neck injury before returning in early September. Remember, too, that John Lackey's bicep locked on him in Toronto in early April. At the time of the injury, the way he clenched his arm, onlookers were speculating he'd torn his Tommy John-repaired ulnar elbow ligament.
The Yankees finished above .500 with a plethora of injuries, seemingly turning to any available former Blue Jay in the process.
This statistics-obsessed culture places zero value on cohesion, preferring to individualize each player and position as if he and it work mutually exclusive to all else. It's strange because when you talk to players who've won, in some cases won often, they preach about the importance of accountability and sacrifice for one another.
No, there weren't deep divisions in the clubhouse, but neither was there cohesion on the field on a consistent basis.
Back in April, it was popular to slough off the mounting losses with the tired “It's early” mantra. There were musings about how the standings didn't matter until the season's final day, when you hoped to be at least one game ahead of the team in second place. True, if not simplistic, but the public lack of concern over the slow start shouldn't be tolerated to the same degree if it repeats in 2014. Some teams don't recover from a bad first two or three weeks.
There's no place for Twitter drama and unnecessary sparring with the media. The pressure of playoff action, witnessed first hand in this ALCS, is no match for the psychologically fragile.
The expectation, of course, should be to contend. Nothing less, although it's difficult for fans to want to go there in their heads after the season they just witnessed.
“They pitch. They play defense. Team chemistry. Situational hit,” repeated Gomes of championship-calibre teams.
The strange firing of hitting coach Chad Mottola won't be the only move this winter and it's a good thing because, hanging around Fenway Park in October for a couple of days, seeing the anticipation and the expectation and the camaraderie, the Blue Jays have a way to go to get here.