Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Blue Jays rallying with ex-Fisher Cats
THE HUBBUB surrounding the Blue Jays out of spring training was generated mostly by the moves they'd made on the trade market or through free agency. They made major deals with the Mets and Marlins. They filled out their roster by signing veterans.
Though after a terrible start sent them hurtling toward the bottom of the American League East, it's been a few homegrown players who came up through their system — and thus carved their teeth in New Hampshire — who have played a primary role in resuscitating the Jays' season to the point they brought a winning record into the four-game series with the Red Sox that opened Thursday night at Fenway Park.
Toronto's offense has been better of late, and its starting pitching has been good enough, but the area in which it distanced itself from the competition over the course of winning 16 of 22 in June has really been in relief. There, the Jays entered Thursday with a 0.91 earned run average for the month (next-best in the AL was the White Sox, at 2.36).
And it had been a trio of former Fisher Cats leading the way while delivering in some of the more high-pressure situations.
At this time a year ago, Aaron Loup was still a current Fisher Cat, though after proving himself in the second half of last season, the lefty has become an important piece for Manager John Gibbons. And this month he's been practically unhittable: in seven innings before getting to Boston he'd struck out seven while allowing just four hits and nary a walk or a run.
Loup also has a save to his credit, while Casey Janssen has the other six the club has registered in June. He pitched 20 games for New Hampshire over parts of three seasons, starting 10 of them, but he's now Toronto's closer and his 2.08 ERA and .923 rate of walks and hits per inning in June brought him into Thursday at 17 for 18 in save opportunities.
But maybe the best of the bunch has been Brett Cecil. He was sent all the way back to Double-A last year after experiencing big-league success in 2009 and '10, and was even then working as a starter. This year Gibbons has had him working exclusively as a reliever, and he's followed up a strong April and May with an even better June.
Through Wednesday he'd worked 11 1/3 innings, allowing just a run on two hits. He'd whiffed 11, his only walk was intentional, and even still his WHIP was a minuscule .265 and opponents were batting .057 against him. He'd also collected a couple of wins while earning Gibbons' trust in the seventh and eighth innings of tight games, sharing with Loup a large part of the responsibility for getting the ball to Janssen.
"I think Cecil's been off the charts," Gibbons told TSN earlier this week, "and it couldn't happen to a better guy."
Together the trio of former Fishers started the series with the Sox at 5-0 for the month, accounting for all but two of the seven wins Toronto's bullpen has accumulated over that stretch. Including an 11-game winning streak, the Jays went 16-5 over one stretch, and six of those victories came by two runs or fewer. Three came in extra innings.
Had the bullpen not been so good, they might still be looking at a double-digit deficit in the division.
"It's a special bunch down there," Gibbons said in the same interview. "A really talented group."
Also not to be overlooked among the New Hampshire alums is the work of Adam Lind, who has been a beast with the bat this month. The 2006 Eastern League MVP came to Fenway leading the Jays in hits (31), home runs (7), and runs batted in (20) for June, leading to a .341 average and .973 on-base plus slugging.Jose Bautista has been bad this month, and fellow superstar Jose Reyes didn't return from an ankle injury until Wednesday, though thanks in no small part to Lind's return to the form that earned him AL MVP votes in 2009, Toronto's offense has remained productive.
And the Jays, with a nod to New Hampshire, have remained alive in the East.
AFTER a Wednesday bullpen session was cut short due to discomfort, Sox starter Clay Buchholz will be shut down for two or three days, according to Manager John Farrell.
An MRI revealed no structural damage to the neck and shoulder area that has limited him to just two starts since May 22, though this latest delay still makes it unlikely that Buchholz will be back on a big-league mound before the All-Star break. Farrell said Buchholz is getting frustrated, but the priority at this point is to get the pitcher back to 100 percent — and that objective is emphasized by how much Buchholz has meant to the Sox when he's been on the mound.
They're 11-1 when he pitches, and even after missing most of the past five weeks he's still been the AL's third-most valuable player this season, according to baseball-reference.com's wins above replacement tabulations.
THE SOX took the field Thursday with a 3 1/2-game lead in the division. That marked their largest lead at any stage in almost four years, and their largest lead at the midpoint of a season since 2007.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.