Since splitting a two-game set with the Yankees in Toronto last week, the Jays have dropped two of three to the Rays at home, then traveled to Arlington and took three of four from the Rangers. That last is the best cluster of games the Jays have had since the opening week of the season.
Toronto took that series thanks largely to their bats as they averaged 6.75 runs per game, but beyond Jose Bautista, who is having an April to rival the best months of his breakout 2010 season, there's little about the Jays' lineup that impresses. Aaron Hill is hurt. Travis Snider just got sent down yet again. Mike McCoy and Rajai Davis (just off the disabled list today) take their places. Journeyman Jayson Nix, a last-minute fill-in at third base once the Jays decided they couldn't bear Edwin Encarnacion's defense any longer, was one of the Jays' more productive hitters before hitting the DL himself, forcing Encarnacion back into the field and ex-Yankee Juan Rivera into the lineup. Adam Lind has driven in 20 runs apparently by accident given his .263/.296/.434 season line. Rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia has shown power, but also a knack for making outs, both of which were expected.
Given what surrounds him, it's a miracle Bautista ever gets a pitch to hit, which he really shouldn't this weekend. His .529 on-base percentage (not a typo) suggests he's getting pitched around plenty, though he has yet to draw an overtly intentional walk and received only two last year.
The Jays' bullpen is at full strength now that Frank Francisco has returned (he came off the DL at the start of that two-game set against the Yankees last week), and Toronto has gotten good work out of that unit. They also have Brandon Morrow back in their rotation to complete the triumvirate of young arms that are the team's biggest strength. The Yankees will happily miss Morrow this weekend, but they start the series by running right into Toronto's ace, lefty Ricky Romero.
Freddy Garcia (1-0, 0.69) vs. Ricky Romero (1-3, 3.00), Friday, April 29, 7:05, YES
Infamously over-drafted, Rickey Romero was surprisingly effective as a rookie in 2009, was better as a sophomore last year, and has thus far taken yet another step forward as a junior. Four of Romero's five outings thus far have been quality and he hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of those four, three of which saw him complete a least seven innings. On the season, he has struck out 34 men in 33 innings against just ten walks and three home runs. The 26-year-old southpaw features a pair of low-90s fastballs, a good curve, and a splendid changeup that makes him harder on righties than lefties, and is clearly the Blue Jays' ace. Last year, he faced the Yankees three times, twice dominating them (four runs allowed in 17 innings) and once getting lit up (eight runs in 2 2/3 innings).
As for Garcia, in two starts, he has posted this line: 12 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 8 K, and has not needed more than 90 pitches to get through six innings in either outing. That won't last, but it's not a fluke either. Last year, Garcia made 18 quality starts in 28 tries and in three of them allowed just one run, not counting a seven-inning outing against the Yankees in which he allowed two runs, only one of which was earned. By comparison, Garcia had just four real disaster starts last year in which he finished with more runs allowed than inning pitched. Freddy Garcia isn't a pitcher you want starting for your team in a big game (and the Blue Jays have the clear advantage in this matchup), but he's not out of place in a major league rotation.
A.J. Burnett (3-1, 3.52) vs. Kyle Drabek (2-0, 3.30), Saturday, April 30, 4:05, YES
Burnett was getting strikeouts but not innings in his first four starts, three of which were team wins, but only two of which were quality starts. His last time out, against the White Sox, Burnett got innings (8), but not strikeouts (2) and was stuck with a no-decision when the Sox pitchers made the one run he allowed hold up. Against the Blue Jays in Toronto last week, he struck out six and allowed just two earned runs, but used up 105 pitches in 5 1/3 innings, in part by walking five.
Drabek wasn't much better in that game, walking four in 5 1/3 frames and giving up four runs. That was Drabek's worst start thus far this season. Three of his other four have been quality, including an impressive season debut in which he held the Twins to one run on one hit while striking out seven in seven innings. He has walked as many as he has struck out since then, however. This will be Drabek's ninth major league start and his third against the Yankees. The first was a quality start loss in late September of last season.
Ivan Nova (1-2, 5.82) vs. Jesse Litsch (2-1, 3.86), Sunday, May 1, 1:05, YES/TBS
Nova has two quality starts in four tries this season, but has yet to strike out more than three men in a game and his last appearance against the Blue Jays, which came in relief during a long layoff, ended in a Travis Snider walk-off double. Nova made his first and third major league starts against the Blue Jays late last year with solid, but abbreviated results, a bit of a dust-up with Jose Bautista (who got his revenge, Joey Bats-style), and just three Ks in ten innings. Nova is a bit of an enigma for the Yankees right now, but with Phil Hughes likely out for an extended period of time, the Yankees very much need Nova to deliver on the promise he has shown no matter how intermittently he has shown it thus far this season.
The 26-year-old Litsch is the last man standing from the Jays once-promising rotation of Roy Halladay, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, and Litsch. Halladay is a Phillie, Marcum is a Brewer, McGowan seems irreparably broken (but lingers on the 60-day DL). Litsch and Marcum hit the DL with McGowan in 2009, Litsch for Tommy John surgery performed that June. Litsch returned in June of last year, but made just nine starts before again going under the knife, that time due to a torn hip labrum. Litsch then opened this season with a quality start win and five shutout innings in Seattle (shrug) before having a poor outing at Fenway Park and falling victim to a roster crunch when Brandon Morrow came off the DL. It seems the Jays decided that there was some value in keeping Jo-Jo Reyes in the rotation, but since Reyes is out of option and Litsch isn't, Litsch was send down to make room only to return when Brett Cecil also somehow proved less viable than Reyes following a five-inning loss to the Yankees last week.
Litsch's triumphant return was a quality start against the Rangers in Texas on Tuesday, a game in which he struck out just one batter and made a hitter swing and miss just four times. The truth is, Litsch is a bit fringy (though not as fringy as Reyes). He's a righty junkballer who throws six pitches (including three fastballs) at eighty-something miles per hour and depends on command and control to succed. It worked for him in his early 20s, when he posted a 3.67 ERA in 48 starts at ages 22 and 23, but after two years lost to surgery, he's practically starting from scratch and may actually have more to prove than Nova.
Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Record: 12-13 (.480)
2011 Third-Order Record: 14-11 (.578)
Manager: John Farrell
General Manager: Alex Anthopoulos
Home Ballpark: Rogers Centre
Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-103; LH HR-124
RH Avg-107; RH HR-114
Who has replaced whom:
• Rajai Davis (DL) has replaced Travis Snider (mL)
• Mike McCoy (mL) and David Cooper (mL) have replaced Aaron Hill (DL) and Jayson Nix (DL) with Juan Rivera replacing Nix in the lineup and Edwin Encarnacion replacing Nix at third base
• Brandon Morrow (DL) has replaced Brett Cecil (mL)
1B - Adam Lind (L)
2B - Mike McCoy (R)
SS - Yunel Escobar (R)
3B - Edwin Encarnacion (R)
C - J.P. Arencibia (R)
RF - Jose Bautista (R)
CF - Corey Patterson (L)
LF - Rajai Davis (R)
DH - Juan Rivera (R)
R - John McDonald (IF)
R - Jose Molina (C)
L - David Cooper (1B)
L - Ricky Romero
R - Kyle Drabek
R - Jesse Litsch
L - Jo-Jo Reyes
R - Brandon Morrow
R - Jon Rauch
R - Frank Francisco
R - Octavio Dotel
R - Jason Frasor
R - Carlos Villanueva
R - Shawn Camp
L - Marc Rzepczynski
R - Casey Janssen
2B - Aaron Hill (sore right hamstring)
3B - Jayson Nix (shin contusion)
RHP - Dusin McGowan (rotator cuff surgery)
LHP - Jesse Carlson (rotator cuff tendonitis)
R - Rajai Davis (LF)
R - Yunel Escobar (SS)
R - Jose Bautista (RF)
L - Adam Lind (1B)
R - Juan Rivera (DH)
R - Edwin Encarnacion (3B)
R - J.P. Arencibia (C)
R - Mike McCoy (2B)
L - Corey Patterson (CF)