Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrate Jose Bautista two run homer during MLB action against the Tampa Bay Rays at the Rogers Centre April 17, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Photograph by: Abelimages, Getty Images
TORONTO — When your team is not hitting, you naturally look elsewhere for encouraging signs. John Farrell finds them where he dared not look last year: in his defence.
Before Tuesday night’s game, the Toronto Blue Jays manager cited improved defence as a key reason his Toronto Blue Jays stood a game above .500 despite a pitiable .231 team batting average over their first nine games.
Better defence provides pitchers with a greater sense of security and helps to keep pitch counts in check, he said.
It did not take long for his words to ring true. In a 7-3 win over Tampa Bay, the Blue Jays backed starter Ricky Romero early with some splendid defensive plays. They did not often hit safely, but they made the most of seven hits — along with three errors by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria.
Jose Bautista and Adam Lind burst out of mini-slumps. Bautista contributed a home run and sacrifice fly. Lind had a two-run homer and two singles, all to the opposite field and all with two strikes. Brett Lawrie hit his second homer.
Ironically, the Rays, known as a superb defensive team, handed the Jays three unearned runs in the third inning owing to two errors by Longoria, a two-time Gold Glove winner. In the sixth, he made a wild throw that brought home another run.
On the winning side, Romero appreciated what his defence wrought, notably the three double plays behind him and especially on a night when he battled his mechanics through his six-plus innings.
"I’m trying to get deep in the game and let the defence work," he said.
"Those guys are good at what they do and they work hard at it, and it shows."
The most spectacular play of the game came in the first inning, when Bautista played a high bounce perfectly off the right-field wall and fired an on-the-fly strike to second base, cutting down Carlos Pena trying to stretch a single.
"That’s what defence is all about," Romero said. "Good teams make those plays."
It was a breakout night for Lind, who felt he had taken good swings throughout the first nine games with little to show for it. That changed against the Rays. His two-run homer keyed a three-run third and his second single gave the Jays a 6-3 cushion in the seventh.
When Lind is at his best, he often drives the ball to the left side, Farrell said. Lind said he does not focus on the opposite field.
"When it’s going good, it’s not a forced thing," he said. "It just happens with good swings. That’s the key."
In his pre-game media dissertation, Farrell spoke about his defence in a manner unheard of last season.
“The pitcher’s not feeling like he has to strike someone out,” he said. “You can pitch with more relaxation. You can have trust in contact knowing that plays are going to be made. I think our outfield defence has been very solid and much improved over a year ago.”
The Rays hit many balls hard against Romero, who allowed three runs before leaving with none out in the seventh and a run in. But his defence turned three double plays behind him, and four in all.
One of the double plays was started by third baseman Lawrie while playing in short right field in an over-shift against Luke Scott. Instead of taking the easy out at first, Lawrie wheeled and fired to shortstop Yunel Escobar to start an inning-ending double-play.
After the 2011 season, general manager Alex Anthopoulos called his outfield defence the worst in baseball. Overall, the Jays made 110 errors; only three American League teams made more. Their .982 fielding percentage ranked eighth in the AL.
Reinforcements came late in the season. After centre-fielder Colby Rasmus arrived in a trade and Lawrie was promoted from Triple-A, the defence tightened. Rasmus brought speed, range and accurate reads, a combination sorely lacking in his various predecessors. Lawrie showed remarkable prowess for a 21-year-old playing his first season at third base.
“Pitching and defence clearly go hand in hand," Farrell said. "But when you can make an above-average play to record an out rather than extend an inning, on many occasions you’re probably looking at a difference of 10 to 12 pitches inside a given inning.”
As for boosting a pitcher’s confidence, Romero has often praised J.P. Arencibia in that regard. The second-year catcher is more adroit this year at blocking balls in the dirt, an essential skill when handling Romero’s curveball. That too was abundantly clear against the Rays.
“His defence has become solid,” Farrell said of Arencibia. “I think he has stabilized in that area.”
Added Romero: "J.P.’s been tremendous behind the dish. He’s worked hard at it. I’ve never questioned his defence ä Obviously, there’s some tough pitches that he gets behind and he blocks. At the end of the day, he’s pretty beat up. He’s a hard worker and mentally tough, and he’s doing a great job."
On the other hand, Arencibia has only two hits in 32 at-bats this season.
But he hit two balls hard against the Rays, including a shot that cost Longoria his first error. That play could easily have been ruled a hit.
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