That pop bunt the other night, third inning of a 1-0 game, with a runner on and nobody out? Entirely Teoscar Hernandez’s unilateral decision.
The manager, who’s starting to get an earful about his small-ball tendencies, holds his hands up in a no mas gesture. “No, I didn’t have him bunting. He did it on his own.”
Not that Charlie Montoyo disagreed with the strategy. “Let me explain. It wasn’t a bad idea. They had the shift on him, so he had all that space open. He tried to push it and of course it didn’t work.” Pushed into foul territory, a poopy pop. “What he was trying, to push it to second base, it would have been an easy hit.”
Still, the mark of a desperate man. A slugger like Hernandez — or such he has been bruited, and such he has been as a Blue Jay, with jolt in his bat, albeit of a streaky nature, plagued by prolonged hitting slumps — casting about for a way to get on base, no longer trusting either his power or his shriveling hitting acumen.
An ailment that has infected the whole “cold as a walk-in freezer” lineup, blanked back-to-back by the Twins prior to Wednesday’s 9-1 defeat. Into their 25th scoreless inning before Billy McKinney broke up the no-hitter-in-progress with a belt over the fence in right. Tenth time this year the Jays had been held hitless through the first four innings.
The dearth of runs and hits is very much an identifying trait of the 2019 Blue Jays. For Hernandez, specifically, the problem is that he’s missing his pitches, not the stuff out of the zone but the balls he should be hitting, making contact on just 79 of 518 pitches, barreling up on a mere five of them, striking out 28 per cent of the time.
A bunt — and a poor one at that — was grasping at straws.
“It was my decision,” Hernandez confirmed, following BP for a game in which his name didn’t appear in the starting lineup (nor did Vladimir Guerrero Jr., for the second time in six days) and the team’s scoring miseries ground on, coupled on this evening with godawful pitching. “Obviously, I’m not swinging the bat good. I saw a chance maybe I can bunt one to second base, I can get a base hit or I can get a sac bunt.
“Everybody knows that I’m not doing well. But this is how the game is. For me, I just got to keep working and try to get out of it.”
The bunting option likely wouldn’t even have crossed Hernandez’s mind last season. And maybe it shouldn’t now either, for all that his manager is a devotee of the homely thing. Hernandez is supposed to be a power hitter who, OK, doesn’t hit much for average. Only two jacks through six weeks, dragging a .195 BA and .556 OPS; 0-for-7 recently, 1-for-13 on the other side of a Saturday off-day.
Muscle cut, among the most physically fit of Jays, Hernandez is no longer the defensive liability of old — 2018 — in left field, although he still sometimes takes curious routes and angles to a ball. The throwing arm is a howitzer. But the offensively scrawny Jays need him to hit, to barrel up on some balls. Thing is, a hitting slump’s like the common cold: there’s no quickie cure.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” sighs Hernandez.
How long, however, will Toronto be patient with Hernandez, particularly with many clamouring for Cavan Biggio (only two years younger) to be promoted from Triple-A, where he’s hitting .326 with half a dozen home runs and taking reps in the outfield.
Montoyo’s instinctive posture, with all his struggling players, is: “Hey man, I believe in you.’’
And yet. “There comes a point, just like everybody else, you’ve got to do it,” the skipper continues. “So, yeah, I don’t know when that’s going to be. And that’s a ‘yeah’ for anybody hitting .200. By the time it’s May or June, there’s other people fighting for the same job. That’s not just Teoscar.”
The question was put bluntly — yes or no please — to GM Ross Atkins before his club’s two-hit effort on Wednesday night. Is Hernandez’s job in jeopardy?
It’s probably unfair to isolate Hernandez as mealy with the bat. As a team, Jays were hitting .225 as of first pitch, fifth from the bottom in the majors. Pretty much everybody not named Eric Sogard has been scraping. The collective hitting woes were evident out of the chute. Sure, rookies Danny Jansen and Guerrero Jr. — who’s not seen anything over the plate — are below the Mendoza Line, but they’re hardly the telltale factors.
Thus the players felt it necessary to convene for a hitters’ meeting Tuesday, which obviously had zero impact. Justin Smoak, Freddy Galvis and Luke Maile were among those who spoke.
“It was just to discuss how we’re going to prepare better,” disclosed pitching coach Guillermo Martinez, who tirelessly crunches the analytics and works one-on-one with the hitters. “Get some of the guys to discuss from their experiences how they got better prior to games. Smoak … gave a little bit of his own examples to younger guys and just be a role model in that sense.”
Martinez added: “Especially a lot of these guys are brand new to the big leagues. Yeah, they’re big leaguers but they’re young and they’re still learning as they go. Even a guy like Smoak is continuing to learn every single day about himself. But if you got a guy, not just coaches, telling players what they need to do, I think it’s very important for other players to share their ideas and other hitters listen as well.”
Patience. Patience. Patience.
“You can’t just panic and think, like, we have to change everything,” said Martinez. “The guys are working right, the guys are focused on their routines, they know some of the things they need to work on.’’
Of course Toronto’s expectations were dim for this season, as the rebuild maxes out. But one does wonder how chronic losing will affect the spirits of those tenderfoot Jays. Guerrero, as a for instance, has never known failure before.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a losing culture here,” dissented Jansen, who countered that he’s contended with poor results before. “I’ve started a season 4-for-4 and I’ve started a season 0-for-27. In ’15 I hit .206, and in ’16 I hit .216. So I’ve struggled for two seasons and I know what it’s like. I also know what it’s like to bounce back.
“We have to keep battling, keep bouncing off each other, keep fighting.”
And, he emphasizes, having each other’s back in days of frustration that turns into weeks of bafflement and vexation.
“That’s the whole point of having a team. You’re a brotherhood. You’re together. You never want to do it by yourself. Because then you start losing the joy, when you think you’re alone.”
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
Published at Thu, 09 May 2019 02:33:43 +0000