TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays have been at their inconsistent best this season.
The optimism that surrounded the team at the start of the year was nearly snuffed out by a terrible start.
An 11-game winning streak brought some much-needed relief and got people talking again. The 43-45 Blue Jays are hovering near the .500 mark and need a second-half surge to get in the playoff mix in the American League East.
This is a team that has as many question marks now as it did in the spring. There have been some big disappointments and some intriguing surprises over the first half of the season.
The new-look starting rotation has struggled more often than not. The bullpen — thought to be a soft point by many observers at the start of the year — has been dominant.
Sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are posting big numbers again but too many weak points remain through the lineup. First baseman Adam Lind is enjoying a bounceback year and shortstop Jose Reyes has impressed with the bat and the glove.
Injuries have taken a big toll and forced manager John Gibbons to be creative with his lineup.
So is this the squad that was among the worst in the major leagues over the first six weeks of the season? Or is it the one that looked as if it couldn’t be stopped last month? It’s hard to tell.
“Well that little run we made in the last few weeks, we’re resilient, we could have disappeared,” Gibbons said in a recent interview. “We’re still on that fringe, we can go one way or the other so we need to play good baseball from here on out.
“It would have been easy to really just disappear but they didn’t do that. They show up to play every day and that’s all we can ask for.”
The rotation looked so deep in early April that there were several candidates for the ace title. However, the performances have been so uneven since that the team doesn’t have a clear No. 1 starter.
R.A. Dickey has only shown flashes of his Cy Young form. Josh Johnson missed seven weeks with triceps inflammation and has yet to get on track.
Mark Buehrle soaks up innings but often allows a lot of earned runs. Brandon Morrow was mediocre before going down with a forearm injury and J.A. Happ saw limited action before taking a liner off the head and injuring his knee.
As a result, stop-gap measures on the mound have been the norm. Without the stellar crew of relievers, the Blue Jays would really be in trouble.
Closer Casey Janssen has been excellent and left-hander Brett Cecil has posted all-star numbers. Steve Delabar’s strikeout totals are top flight and Juan Perez and Aaron Loup have also been quite effective.
Injuries have been a factor throughout the lineup as well with Reyes and Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C., missing significant time with ankle injuries. Melky Cabrera has battled hamstring issues all year and his range in left field has been significantly hampered.
While the big bats of Bautista and Encarnacion have come through, centre-fielder Colby Rasmus and catcher J.P. Arencibia have yet to fully hit their potential.
Munenori Kawasaki was a pleasant surprise as a fill-in for Reyes and outfielder Rajai Davis has been solid but newcomers Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis still look unsettled.
The wild-card race remains a possibility and if the starters give the team a chance, the Blue Jays have the potential to be playing meaningful baseball in September for a change.
“We just have to keep the momentum going our way and just focus on what’s allowed us to win games and that’s been great pitching and timely hitting,” Bautista said.
The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is fast approaching. It will be interesting to see if general manager Alex Anthopoulos decides to be a buyer or a seller.
Gibbons remains optimistic that his team — which is 10 games out of first place in the AL East and 5 1/2 games back in the wild-card race — can still move up the division standings.
“We’ve got to play better than we did in the first half but I expect us to stay in this thing,” he said. “But we’ve got to be solid. We’ve got to get really good starting pitching and we’ve got to swing the bats.
“We really like where our bullpen is at but it all starts on the mound with our starting rotation. If they pitch good, we’ve got a shot.”