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Mitchell: Evaluating the Toronto Blue Jays through 20 games – TSN

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TORONTO — By the time you read this, the Toronto Blue Jays will have surpassed the one-third mark of this completely strange shortened season.

A Wednesday matinee at Camden Yards is game No. 21, and we’ve learned a lot about the talent on the field as well as manager Charlie Montoyo in the dugout.

We think.

If there’s one thing that has defined the first third of the Jays’ season, it’s their ability to lose close games in heartbreaking fashion.

At 9-11, they may be down, but they’re certainly not out if you want to be optimistic.

The club’s hopes of getting to 30-plus wins, which would put them on the periphery of the expanded postseason race, haven’t been helped with the up-and-down start, but they’re far from completely buried.

“Because of our pitching, I believe we’ve still got a chance, and if we swing the bats like we’ve been swinging them, we’re going to be okay,” Montoyo said when asked about how he feels about where his team stands 20 games in. “Again, it’s all about playing clean games. You can only beat the good teams if you play a clean game. If you play your B or C game, you’re not going to beat them.”

Whether they’re good enough to reel off an above .500 record the rest of the way is another debate. We’ve seen a young, inconsistent ballclub with an overworked bullpen, an embattled manager because of it, and the continued insistence they’re still rebuilding.

If they’re still rebuilding, we shouldn’t waste time wondering whether they’re a contender.

Just happy to be here.

That sentiment has frustrated fans and they’re completely right to feel that way.

Tempering expectations is one thing. Publicly projecting an indifference to losing is another.

On the field, the players have shown resiliency in numerous ways, dealing with the homefield uncertainty, a ton of time on the road amidst a pandemic, as well as the ability to bounce back after losses.

They longest losing streak they’ve endured is three games, while, on the flip side of that, their longest winning streak is just two in a row.

“What I like about our team is after tough losses we come back and win games and that’s a sign of a good team,” Montoyo said.

“The things I don’t like … of course, the games that we lost is because we didn’t play clean games and we need to get there. To be one of the best teams in baseball, you have to play clean games and that cost us in the games that we lost.”

With their run differential slowly creeping towards the black – minus-4 through 20 games –the offence has slowly found its groove over the past week, going from averaging 3.1 runs per game on Aug. 12, last in baseball, to 4.5 through 20 games, good for 22nd.

FanGraphs is currently projecting the Jays to go 18-22 the rest of the way, giving them a 31.5 per cent to be one of the eight American League teams to reach the expanded postseason.

Here’s a look at who mattered during the first 20 games.

OFFENCE

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MVP: SS Bo Bichette

The 22-year-old leads the team in batting average (.361), steals (4), slugging percentage (.672) and wRC+ (183), generally looking like a franchise player on a day-in, day-out basis.

The problem is he’s currently on the IL with a sprained knee and there’s really no timeline for his return. The Jays will try to survive without him but no Bichette leaves a huge hole at the top of a not-so-deep lineup.

Biggest surprise: Outfield production

They’ve taken some heat at various points, but Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez, minus one game-changing defensive miscue, have been carrying this team at times.

Grichuk is currently the team’s hottest hitter with Bichette sidelined, while Hernandez leads the team in homers through 20 games with seven.

Overall, Jays outfielders have been worth 1.3 fWAR, good for 12th in baseball.

Sandwiched between the Philadelphia Phillies (1.4 fWAR), who backed up a Brinks truck to add Bryce Harper to their outfield, and division rival Tampa (1.2 fWAR) is a pretty good spot to be considering the outfield was seen as an area of concern heading into the season.

Strictly offensively, their park adjusted wRC+ of 121 is fifth overall in baseball.

Biggest disappointment: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

He’s walked to the plate 85 times and produced a negative fWAR at minus-0.3, generating a below average 88 wRC+ with the bat alone.

Sure, he’s turned it around lately, but the overall .221/.294/.390 slash line with three home runs still doesn’t come close to meeting anyone’s expectations, including Vladdy Jr.’s.

Most underrated: 2B Cavan Biggio

The batting average might never wow you, but Biggio’s high-walk, high-power ways have continued in his sophomore season, with Montoyo even choosing to flip him with Bichette at the top of the order and insert the second baseman into the leadoff spot.

Biggio seems to like it.

Through 81 career plate appearances batting first, Biggio has a .980 OPS.

ROTATION

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MVP: LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu

Paid to be an ace, Ryu has come pretty close to delivering and he’s only been getting better over his past three starts with a 1.06 ERA.

He hasn’t been dominant and an overall 3.46 ERA across 26 innings looks fine on paper, but the exciting part is Ryu has been holding opponents to just a .211 batting average and .665 OPS against.

The important part?

The Jays have a 4-1 record when Ryu is on the mound.

Biggest surprise: Nate Pearson’s lack of strikeouts

Young pitchers often take time to adjust, so watching Pearson struggle in his initial foray through the majors shouldn’t shock anyone, but the real answer for the 24-year-old’s up-and-down start was revealed Wednesday when he was placed on the 10-day IL with elbow tightness.

There’s currently no timeline for a return.

It helps explain the command issues that have allowed hitters to sit back and wait for Pearson to make a mistake, leading to a 6.61 ERA through four starts, as well as the surprising lack of swing-and-miss, whiffing just 14 across 16.1 innings, a well below league average 18.9 per cent strikeout rate.

Biggest disappointment: RHP Tanner Roark

Signed in December to a two-year, $24 million deal, Roark is carrying around a 6.00 ERA, supported by a 6.95 FIP, through his first three starts in a Blue Jays uniform.

It’s a tiny sample size, but the 33-year-old right-hander’s command has been off and he’s been homer-prone — three allowed in 12 innings — which was a red flag when he signed.

Most underrated: RHP Thomas Hatch

He’s only made one short start on opening weekend, spending the rest of his time as a bullpen Swiss Army knife, but Hatch has been an early season revelation and looks to have a future in the Jays’ rotation.

His 2.70 ERA across 10 innings is a bit misleading, but the MLB-calibre stuff and delivery allows him to pitch in multiple roles for the time being.

BULLPEN

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MVP: RHP Jordan Romano

It’s not a surprise that’s he’s an important bullpen piece, but no one could have possibly predicted Romano would be one of the best relievers in baseball through 20 games, generating 0.4 fWAR, a top 20 mark in the league.

The 27-year-old right-hander has only had one hiccup, but on most nights, he’s been using a 98-mph fastball and filthy slider to punch hitters out, registering 15 strikeouts across 11 innings of work.

There’s no arguing he’s the closer of the future at this point and will likely earn his first career save here in the fairly near future.

Biggest surprise: LHP Ryan Borucki

Here’s why you just never know with pitchers.

After struggling to stay healthy, Borucki finally got over that hump in March, before deciding to tweak a pitch that has completely changed his ability to strike hitters out.

Morphing his slider into more of a cutter-type pitch, Borucki has been dominant in his first-ever bullpen assignment, striking out 14 in just 6.1 innings.

He may return to the rotation at some point, but right now Borucki is showing he can be a high-leverage relief arm if that’s the way things break.

Biggest disappointment: Ken Giles’ injury

I’m not going to waste words crushing Japanese import Shun Yamaguchi, who’s been the victim of some unfortunate circumstances and assignments, actually holding a 2.48 FIP and lowering his ERA to 7.50 on Tuesday despite giving up a run in his 1.2 innings.

Nope.

It’s definitely the handling of Giles way back on July 26, a Sunday afternoon in Tampa that led to an IL stint, a PRP injection in his right elbow and an uncertain future.

Giles played catch Tuesday and felt good, according to Montoyo, but at this point they’d have to rush him back in order to trade him by Aug. 31.

Most underrated: RHP A.J. Cole

When Cole was given a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training way back in December, he immediately became a favourite to be part of the bullpen mix despite the lack of a true roster spot.

The 28-year-old has not disappointed in the least, holding a 0.84 ERA in nine appearances.

He’s given Montoyo some much-needed bullpen depth.

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Steven Stamkos ruled out for Game 4 of Stanley Cup final – CBC.ca

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Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will not play in Friday’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars, head coach Jon Cooper announced.

In making the announcement, Cooper did not rule out his star for the remainder of the series. That would include Game 5, which is Saturday — the only back-to-back games in these finals.

“He’s not going to play, but we haven’t ruled him out for the series,” Cooper said. “But he’s not going to play tonight.”

Stamkos, 30, played for the first time since Feb. 25 when he suited up for Game 3 on Wednesday. Stamkos underwent surgery in March to repair a core muscle injury. He had an initial recovery timeline of six to eight weeks, but it’s believed he aggravated the injury and experienced at least one setback since then while trying to join the team.

WATCH | Stamkos scores in 1st period back from injury:

In his daily recap, Rob Pizzo compares Steven Stamkos comeback in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Karate Kid. 2:55

He scored in the first period of the Lightning’s 5-2 win in Game 3 — giving Tampa Bay a 2-1 series lead — but then did not return to the bench after the first intermission. He logged 2 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time.

“Obviously, there is an issue that I’ve been working through. We’ll see what happens from here, but I was just extremely happy to be out there with these guys and have a chance to just be on the bench and contribute to a win,” Stamkos said after the game.

Despite his limited ice time, Stamkos made a big impact on his team by simply being on the ice — with the goal an added bonus.

“He only had five shifts, but probably as efficient a five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game,” Cooper said. “Here we are watching a player come back, and then do what he did on the biggest stage at the biggest time of year … you have to marvel at it, and it was pretty damn cool.”

“‘Stammer’s obviously he’s our leader, he’s our captain,” Tampa Bay forward Anthony Cirelli said. “To have him with us there, you give Stammer one opportunity he’s going to make it count. Just having him there with us, the emotion was high, he got that goal there for us which was a huge, huge goal and … we fed off that.”

Stamkos finished second on the team in scoring in the regular season with 66 points in 57 games. His 29 goals were also second on the team.

Taken first overall in 2008, Stamkos has 832 points (422 goals, 410 assists) in 803 regular-season games in his 12-year career, all with the Lightning. He also has 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists) in 71 career playoff games.

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Manfred wants expanded playoffs format to continue, but with adjustments – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Rob Manfred wants expanded playoffs to continue beyond this year with fewer than 16 teams and better rewards for division winners, a shift from the format the Toronto Blue Jays capitalized on to return to the post-season.

The current system was agreed to by Major League Baseball and the players association hours before opening day on July 23 and applies to the 2020 season only. In an interview with sportsnet.ca on Friday, the commissioner said he’s in favour of proceeding with more than the 10 teams that have reached the post-season since 2012, but with a tougher barrier-to-entry.

“I think the 16-team format was a good format for the 60-game unique season we’ve been playing in 2020. The principle reason for that is in a shortened season, it seemed like giving more teams access to the post-season was the right thing to do, the fair thing to do, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, I do think the way things played out this year, the 16-team format has created a lot of excitement right up through the last weekend. Our biggest problem right now is that we don’t know where the heck people are going and can’t plan as far in advance as people might like. I do think it’s been really exciting for the fans.

“The third thing I would say,” Manfred added, “over the long haul, if we continue with the expanded playoffs, I think it would be fewer teams — not 16 — and I think there could be structures that are built in that preserve the incentive, for example, to win the division, preserve the incentive to play hard all the way through the 162-game season, so that the additional teams in the playoffs do not detract from the regular season. The regular season is a really important product for us and believe me, believe me, whatever we do more permanently, we will protect the value of that regular-season product.”

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Alterations to the playoff format in 2021, the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement, would require union approval.

The only advantage for division winners this year under the 16-team format is that they, along with the top second-place finisher, host all the games in the best-of-three wild-card round. Advancing clubs will then gather in bubbles in California and Texas for the division, league championship and World Series.

The Blue Jays, who clinched a post-season berth Thursday, are likely to enter the playoffs as the eighth seed — although they can still surpass the New York Yankees as the second-place finisher in the American League East.

Manfred said he’s “thrilled at the rebuild Toronto has gone through and the success they enjoyed this year,” coming after the club was denied permission to host its regular-season home games by the Canadian government, and had subsequent plans to tenant in Pittsburgh and Baltimore shot down by state governments.

That led the Blue Jays to settle on Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, a plan that initially worried Manfred but ultimately exceeded his expectations.

“My concern when the decision was finally made about Buffalo was, No. 1, timing. It wasn’t just where they were going, they didn’t have a heck of a lot of time to get organized. No. 2, look, no rap on minor-league facilities in general or Buffalo in particular, our major-league facilities are really, really nice and players are used to a certain level of facility to go to work in.

“I was really concerned about our ability to deliver that,” said Manfred. “On both of those topics, the Toronto Blue Jays management team, Mark (Shapiro), Marnie Starkman, what they accomplished – and I did go to Buffalo, I saw it myself – is unbelievable, literally unbelievable.

“Not only was it playable, and serviceable, but the work they did actually created that feeling of this is the Blue Jays’ home, which I think is really important to the psyche of the team and the ability of the team to perform, and an unbelievable accomplishment given the tight timeframe.”

Livestream Toronto Blue Jays games all season with Sportsnet NOW. Plus, watch marquee MLB matchups, the post-season and World Series.

Whether the Blue Jays will be allowed to return home next season is far from certain and Manfred doesn’t know whether baseball’s rebound from early-season outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals is enough to change the Canadian government’s outlook.

“The one thing I can say is that we will do everything humanly possible to convince the government that the Blue Jays should play in Toronto next year,” added Manfred, who also answered questions about how adapted protocols helped save the season, considerations for next year, the future of expanded rosters and whether the pandemic has impacted the Tampa Bay Rays’ dual city plan with Montreal.

Sportsnet: After the outbreaks on the Marlins and Cardinals, which of the mid-stream changes you implemented do you feel helped turned the tide and allowed you to reach this point?

Rob Manfred: I would point to two things. First, after the, and as a result of, particularly the Cardinals situation, we realized that the key consideration was not when could you play again, but instead, what do we have to do to make sure the virus doesn’t spread among the team. You saw a change in approach after the Cardinals where immediately when we found a positive, we shut everybody down and just waited it out until we were sure we didn’t have spread. That was really important.

The second thing is kind of nature. Throughout the year we asked a lot of the players, we asked them to change the way they play the game on the field, we asked them to change the way they lived their private lives, to tell you the truth. The two early incidents just drove home to everybody involved, us, our managers/coaches, front office personnel and the players, that attention to detail, the masks, the distancing is just absolutely crucial.

SN: Hopefully the world is a safer place next year as it relates to COVID-19, but if things level off where we’re at right now, could the protocols currently in place be employed over a 162-game season?

Manfred: That’s too much of a crystal ball for me. Obviously the longer you go, the tougher it is to maintain the (current) model, the more likely it is you’re going to have lapses. All I can say to you about that is what happens next year is going to be dictated by the course of the virus.

SN: The Blue Jays, among others, really leveraged expanded rosters this year. Given all the injuries experienced this year, the shortened body of work for pitchers, and interrupted player-development supply, can a season be safely conducted with only 26 on the roster next year?

Manfred: I think it’s realistic that at some point next year, we could get back to 26. What I would say to you is I suspect, depending on the course of the virus, that there would be a number of operational issues that we’ll have to work through with the MLBPA.

Even if we have a vaccine and everything is good on the health front, there are going to be some results from 2020 that are going to require us to have those kinds of conversations and to continue to show some type of creativity and flexibility to put a quality product out there.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

SN: What’s your sense at this point of what the minor-leagues are going to look like in 2021 between the expected cutting of teams and the need to restart some wider scale player development?

Manfred: Too early to tell on that one. The only thing I can say on that is we recognize that player development is the long-term lifeblood of the industry and whatever form it takes, there probably will be more activity next year than there was this.

SN: For baseball fans in Montreal, how has the pandemic impacted the Rays’ dual-city plan and MLB’s outlook for potential expansion?

Manfred: The Rays process, probably not significantly affected given the timing of that process. With respect to expansion, it’s hard not to admit that, to the extent that there was a certain timeline where expansion was going to be considered, I would say that the pandemic has probably pushed that timeline back.

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Lakers' Davis questionable for Game 5 – TSN

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Los Angeles Lakers superstar centre Anthony Davis is questionable for Saturday’s Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets after suffering a sprained left ankle late in LA’s Game 4 win Thursday night.

Backup shooting guard Dion Waiters is also questionable with a sore left groin while Alex Caruso (sore right wrist), Danny Green (Volar plate injury, left ring finger) and LeBron James (sore right groin) are probable.

The 27-year-old Davis has been one of the Lakers best performers in the postseason bubble, averaging 28.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists over 14 games, including hitting a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers can advance to the NBA Finals with a win on Saturday.

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