Jays weathered the early storm even when bats got cold

Sometime midway through the fifth inning of Sunday’s series finale against Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds, the Blue Jays will hit the quarter mark of the season.

If they do, they will be a team with a track record and hold onto a playoff berth, albeit a lot less than pretty much everyone expected on either count.

It’s very easy to look at the first quarter and see where things went right (starting the pitch, high leverage relief) and went sideways (hitting with runners in goal position, offense in general), but there’s still much more to tell.

Hands up, for example, to anyone who thought Santiago Espinal would be the Jays’ team leader over Victoria Day weekend when it comes to wins over the reserve. anyone? You’re lying, put your hand down.

There’s a general drop in offense throughout the game, but it’s fair to say no one expected the Jays to go without a single hitter with an on-base-plus slugging percentage as high as .850 at this point . They had four last year, nearly half the lineup, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s league-leading 1,002 at the top of the list.

The 23-year-old prodigy continues to be the team’s top batsman, albeit without the usual batting lately.

Average OPS across the major leagues is just 0.685, well below last year’s 0.728 mark. Thank the humidors or the squishy balls for that. Still, the Jays currently have four under-.685 regulars in Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernández; Alejandro Kirk is basically right about that.

That leaves only Espinal, Guerrero and George Springer as above-average big league hitters this season — with all due respect to Danny Jansen, who was top of the group but has barely got on the plate with an oblique injury 20 times.

Say what you will about this team being the last in the American League when it comes to hitting runners in goal positions, but that will correct itself with time. it always has. What massively defies expectations is that they only have three above-average hitters so deep into the season.

That won’t last, general manager Ross Atkins said on this week’s episode of the celebrity podcast, Deep Left Field.

Blue Jay Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who defeated the Yankees' Gleyber Torres, hasn't been immune to the offense's decline in the majors this season.

“You can feel it,” Atkins said. “We’re getting deeper and deeper into the count, we’re making it harder for the starters and contact has been harder. (I’m) really excited about what’s ahead offensively as that’s starting to improve and I’m extraordinarily confident that will be the case.

There have been complaints about the bullpen, particularly after botched saves by Yimi García, Tim Mayza and Jordan Romano on an ugly 2-7 road trip through Cleveland, New York and Tampa Bay, but that’s a pretty strong bias for timeliness at work.

Romano still leads the league in saves, while García’s season stats are severely skewed by a terrible game against the Red Sox in April that saw him dinged for four runs while recording just one out. Throw away that outing and his ERA drops by 2 1/2 runs. Mayza will be missing from the injury list with elbow inflammation, having been one of baseball’s top assists over the past calendar year.

The truth of the bullpen is that the most leveraged assists – Romano, García, Mayza, Adam Cimber and David Phelps – were outstanding. The only problem one could have is that they weren’t perfect, and since offense rarely offers breathing room, they had to be just that all along.

It should get easier as the schedule opens up and that could be the most important factor in evaluating the club as it puts the first quarter in the rear-view mirror.

This quarter was pretty tough.

After a shorter spring training session thanks to the off-season lockout, they played 30 games in 31 days. 25 of their first 35 were against the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Rays — all 2021 playoff teams.

“I think what a lot of people miss is that we’ve just had a long stretch and played against some very, very tough teams,” Springer said after Game 32 of that run, a second straight loss to the Yankees in New York. “(We) had some tight games, had a lot of mentally taxing games, a lot of physically taxing games. It’s not an excuse for not doing what we expect as a team, but it happens. (games) 30 (games in) 31 days to start the year against really good teams is hard to do.

Coming out of that stretch with a winning record is even more difficult, but the Jays did it, albeit by the smallest margin, having won 18 of 35.

Ross Stripling, more than adept at filling in for Hyun-Jin Ryu when the big left was down with a forearm injury, has only missed the playoffs once in his seven years in the big leagues, and that was with last year’s 91-win Jays team that narrowly failed. He’s very pleased with how the Jays have emerged from the toughest early schedule in the majors.

“We’re going to have tough stretches,” said the right-hander, “but nothing as hard as this. Not anymore. Thirty (games) in 31 days against the caliber of the teams we played against and we had a track record. I think we have to be really comfortable and keep our heads up… and you can see that in our dressing room. I don’t think any of us feel down or feel like we didn’t come out in a good place.

And while the schedule played a major role in missing some outsized expectations early on (remember they’re still on a playoff spot), it very well could have done the same in the recovery over the final 75 percent the season plays a major role.

According to powerrankingsguru.com, the Jays have played the toughest schedule in the major leagues thus far and will have the fourth-lightest schedule the rest of the way. It’s actually going up.

Mike Wilner is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the star and host of the baseball podcast Deep Left Field. Follow him on Twitter: @wilnerness

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