Last year’s American League Wild Card Game was the latest epic chapter in the storied rivalry between the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays. Going into the 2016 season, the O’s and Jays were both fresh off ending their respective division title droughts.
Baltimore won the American League East in 2014 for the first time since 1997 and Toronto finished atop the division in 2015 for the first time since 1993. In 2016, both teams were neck and neck throughout the season.
During the season, in which eight one-run games were played between the two teams, the Blue Jays edged the Orioles 10-9 in the season series. Ultimately, the teams finished with identical 89-73 records, setting up one final, winner-take-all showdown in the Wild Card game.
The Blue Jays won the game in an emphatic fashion behind a walk-off three-run blast from now former Blue Jay Edwin Encarnación to end Baltimore’s season. Entering 2017, the two teams were once again expected to duel throughout the season.
However, their early starts this year have been polar opposites. Baltimore is arguably off to the best start in the Majors, while the Blue Jays are off to the worst start. In large part, these contrasting starts are a product of the games that the two teams have gone head-to-head in already this season. The O’s and Jays have faced off six times, with the Orioles having won five of those games.
Are these hot and cold starts indicative of things to come, or will Baltimore’s fate end as abruptly as it did last year?
To start, the Orioles have entered this season with a bang. As of April 17, the O’s are atop the Majors with an 8-3 record through 11 games, all of which have been against division opponents. The biggest question mark for Baltimore going into the season was undoubtedly its starting rotation.
The team’s ace, Chris Tillman, began the season and remains on the disabled list with a shoulder injury that will hold him out until at least May. Behind Tillman, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy were yet to reach their potentials as the number four overall picks in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, respectively. With regard to the back of the rotation, uncertainty and inconsistency were widely anticipated.
Despite doubts about the rotation, the starting pitchers have held their own. Gausman and Bundy have been consistent and are finally pitching like the top-end hurlers they had been touted as. Wade Miley has also performed well, allowing no runs in his first outing.
The one weak link has to be Ubaldo Jiménez, who has allowed five runs in each of his first two starts. Jiménez must regroup and perform well during his next several outings; Otherwise, manager Buck Showalter will replace him with someone who he thinks is capable of more consistency.
Meanwhile, the team’s bullpen has been one of its strong suits over the past several years and is off to a strong start yet again. After each pitching well throughout the 2016 season, relievers Brad Brach, Mychal Givens and Donnie Hart have been effective thus far this year.
Closer Zach Britton has been the one cause for concern. While Britton has converted all five of his save opportunities, he has not done so with ease, often allowing several hitters to reach base before finding his way out of the jam. More importantly, he has been dealing with lingering oblique pain during Spring Training and is now sidelined with a forearm injury. Despite these issues, expect Britton, whose 54 consecutive saves are the second most in MLB history, to return to form and have another stellar season.
As for the bats, the Orioles’s offense is as good as ever, once again fueled by the long ball and timely hitting. Rookie Trey Mancini and new addition Welington Castillo have performed exceptionally well. Mancini has hit four home runs in only seven games, and Castillo is batting over 0.300.
Throw in Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Jonathan Schoop, and you have the workings of an offense that is a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Overall, the Orioles’ strong start should not be all that surprising. While I don’t expect them to pull away from the rest of the AL East anytime soon, I do envision them qualifying for the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
The rotation could still end up being a cause for concern, and Tillman and Britton’s healths must be monitored. However, despite some minor concerns, the Orioles look like a team capable of winning 90 games.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Blue Jays are at a League worst of 2-10 through April 17. The Blue Jays are the victims of a ton of close losses.
Of their 10 losing games, eight have come by two runs or fewer. While this may be a case of bad luck, it is hard to believe that there are not other factors at play.
One major source of concern is the offense. Last year, Toronto was an offensive juggernaut, led primarily by Josh Donaldson, José Bautista and the previously mentioned AL Wild Card Game hero, Edwin Encarnación. Donaldson was the lone player in the lineup to have a decent start to the season, but he was placed on the disabled list last Friday with a calf injury.
Meanwhile, Bautista is hitting a meager 0.136 with zero home runs and one RBI, and Encarnación is quite simply not on the team anymore. The hitting woes of Russell Martin, Devon Travis and newly acquired Steve Pearce have only further exacerbated the team’s struggles.
As if Toronto’s offensive troubles were not enough, its issues on the mound are arguably even more worrisome. The Blue Jays entered the season boasting one of the most complete rotations in baseball: Aaron Sanchez, J. A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman.
What happened? Well, for starters, Sanchez ended up on the disabled list with a blister after his start this Friday. Then, on Sunday, Happ left his start with elbow pain. Meanwhile, Liriano’s ERA sits at 9.00, in large part due to an outing in which he allowed five runs and only recorded one out.
In the bullpen, highly touted closer Roberto Osuna blew his only save opportunity, Jason Grilli surrendered a walk-off home run and Ryan Tepera allowed five runs in 5.1 innings.
Things do not look good for the Blue Jays. The Jays could end up like last year’s Astros — finishing 84-78 after a 7-17 start. They could even end up like the Yankees, who traded several key assets midseason and also managed to finish 84-78, but the prognosis does not look good for this team.
The Jays should be expected to work their way back towards the 0.500 mark, but this is not the same team that was a series victory away from a World Series berth in 2016. On the bright side, this means the O’s will not have to worry about last year’s rival.
The reality may be harsh to hear, but that is the way sports work. You either seize your window of opportunity or you do not, and it is gone before you know it.