The Yankees and Blue Jays Continue AL East Battle

New York Yankees vs. Toronto Blue Jays

The Yankees are on fire. After a weekend sweep of the Red Sox in Boston, the Yankees have now won their last five series after dropping their first three series in what was a disastrous start to the season. The AL East-heavy schedule to start the year continues on with a trip to Toronto this week.

With the Yankees and Blue Jays meeting for the first time in Toronto, I did an email exchange with Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter to talk about Jose Bautista’s early-season struggles, the emergence of rookie Devon Travis and the continuous health issues with Jose Reyes.

Keefe: The last time we talked was before Opening Day. The Blue Jays took two of three in that series and would have swept if not for an late-inning implosion in the second game of the season. The Yankees looked like a bad baseball team during that series and continued to for another week, falling to 3-6 on the year. But the Yankees have won 13 of 16 to improve 16-9 and take over first place. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have gone 10-13 since the opening series and have struggled to find consistency.

What’s been the Blue Jays’ problem after a month of baseball?

Dakers: Pitching, pitching and pitching. The pitching has been every shade of awful imaginable. The starters have been terrible and the relievers haven’t been that much better. The starters have been so bad that the Jays have made a little cottage industry of calling up whoever was to start the next day’s Triple-A game, to throw long relief out of the pen. None of the starters have been good.

Keefe: Devon Travis is leading the Blue Jays in average, home runs, RBIs, OBP and SLG. He’s a rookie second baseman, who only has 88 career at-bats. If he were a Yankee, they would still have him in the minors the way they do Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder.

How fun is it to watch a rookie get the chance to play and succeed in your team? I only ask because the Yankees are against it.

Dakers: Devon Travis has been so much fun to watch. There was a bit of luck involved in him winning a starting job. Going into spring the idea was that Maicer Izturis was going to be the second baseball, at least to start the season, with Travis getting some more development time in Triple-A, but Izturis suffered a “groin strain” a couple of weeks into camp and still isn’t play rehab baseball, so the way was cleared for Travis.

Travis started out spring very slowing, going hitless in his first 5 games, but soon after started crushing the ball. He’s become my favorite in record time.

But the whole “watch a rookie” thing hasn’t gone all that well for the Jays. We started the season with six rookies on the roster, but three of them have been optioned to the minors already.

Keefe: When Jose Bautista didn’t tear apart the Yankees in the opening series, I figured he would go off after he left the Bronx, which would be a nice change. But after a month of games and with a shoulder strain for a few days, Bautista has yet to look like himself every game. I still don’t want him up in a big spot against the Yankees, but he looks off. Is Bautista healthy? What’s been the issue with his slow start?

Dakers: Jose hasn’t been terrible, but he hasn’t quite been Jose Bautista yet. He does have 5 home runs and he is getting on base. Part of his problem is the sore shoulder, he’s been just DHing for the last 7 games, after missing a couple.

He also seems to be getting more than his share of bad strikes called against him. There seems to be at least one a game, where the ball is clearly 6 inches or so off the plate but it is still called a strike, and it seems to happen at the worst times, like when he’s at a 1-1 count. Having those calls go against him makes him feel the need to go after pitches off the plate more than he normally would. He has a very good eye at the plate, but you get a bad call and you think that you have to swing at everything.

He has been doing a better job at controlling his temper on those calls. In the past he might have given the umpire a blast, but now he’s more just shaking his head and trying not to show his displeasure as much.

Keefe: Living in New York and dealing with the Mets and Mets fans I know how frustrating it can be to watch Jose Reyes since it seems like he’s always hurt. Reyes is on the DL with a rib injury and even when he was playing he wasn’t his old self.

Are you frustrated with Reyes’ health issues? Is he losing his abilities?

Dakers: He isn’t a good defensive shortstop anymore. He doesn’t have the range you’d like to see at short. Offensively, he actually started the season hot, and was hitting .417/.444/.500 after the first week of the season, but trying to play through the cracked rib was a mistake.

The Jays seem to have this habit of hoping guys can play through painful injuries, instead of giving the players time off to heal up. I wish they would stop that.

Keefe: Before the season started I thought the AL East would be a six-month fight that would come down to end of the season with no team ever really running away and hiding with a division lead. After almost a month, 4.5 games separate the entire division, which is the smallest gap of any of the league’s six divisions.

After a month of baseball, what are your feelings on the division and how it’s projecting for the summer?

Dakers: It really doesn’t look like there is a team that is ready to run away with the division, at least at this point, which has been good news for the Jays, because they could have buried themselves by now if one or two of the other teams had a hot start. I think the division is likely to start close, no team seems good enough to rattle off a 6-10 game win streak and get themselves a bit of space.

If the Jays want to stay on the edge of the race, the pitching, especially the starting pitching, will have to come around. They are in a bad spot, about all they really can do is hope that their starters figure things out.

Mark Buehrle has been particularly terrible, and when he looks this bad, you start thinking that maybe he’s lost it and maybe he just can’t compete in the MLB anymore, but he was awful to start the 2013 season too. At about this point in 2013, he had an ERA over 7 and then he turned things around and had a normal Mark Buehrle-type year. The Jays have to hope that he, and the other starters can do that again.