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Friday, April 26, 2013
Toronto falling short early

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Munenori Kawasaki, the Toronto Blue Jays' new shortstop, is savvy enough to work a count and sure-handed enough to make all the plays at his position. His nonstop hustle, anticipation and baseball instincts help him compensate for less than eye-popping physical gifts.

And let there be no doubt: The man can bust a move.

Kawasaki, 31, generated raucous laughter recently when he unveiled some new dance steps on a team charter flight. The Blue Jays had just dropped four of six games on a homestand, so he helped lighten the mood with his antics. That's not unusual for Kawasaki, who has quickly emerged as a clubhouse favorite with his outgoing and off-center personality. His teammates laugh when they see him standing on his head and contorting his body every which way as part of an obsessive pregame stretching ritual. And they laugh some more when he shouts at the top of his lungs from the dugout during games, even though they have no clue what he's saying.

"He's a breath of fresh air," said Toronto manager John Gibbons. "He just makes you feel good. You can be getting your [butt] kicked, and you look at him and laugh. For somebody that speaks very little English and hasn't been in the States much, players gravitate to him. He's a character."

The more Kawasaki entertains and blends into the fabric of the clubhouse, the more he helps take everybody else's mind off the fact that he's not Jose Reyes. Then the Blue Jays look at the standings, and it shocks them back into reality.

Munenori Kawasaki
Munenori Kawasaki is fast becoming a fan and clubhouse favorite in Toronto.

The Jays were a fashionable pick to make the 2013 postseason after a winter splurge that brought Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Emilio Bonifacio and Melky Cabrera into the fold, but they're off to a rough start at 9-14. They're batting .224 as a team and .197 with runners in scoring position. Jose Bautista has five home runs and four singles, and J.P. Arencibia and Colby Rasmus rank among the major league leaders in strikeouts. The Jays have committed a league-high 16 errors and turned a league-low 14 double plays, and their vaunted starting rotation is 5-8 with a 5.34 ERA.

The Jays' fortunes could ultimately hinge on their ability to take a punch. They're in the early phase of a three-month reality check as they try to navigate the schedule without their defensive anchor, leadoff catalyst and the man who was expected to make things go.

Reyes' season took a sad and unexpected twist in Kansas City the night of April 12, when he injured his left ankle on an aborted slide into second base. The TV cameras captured Reyes with tears rolling down his cheeks before a cart took him off the field. A subsequent MRI revealed a severe sprain of the ankle, and Reyes is expected to be out until the All-Star break. That news came as a mild relief to the Jays, given that surgery would have forced him to miss the entire season.

Among Reyes' teammates, the initial reaction was shock. Then everybody wondered: Where do we go from here?

Alex Anthopoulos, Toronto's intrepid general manager, considered the possibility of going out and making a move. Among the shortstop alternatives tossed around in speculation: Milwaukee's Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt, and Atlanta's Paul Janish and Tyler Pastornicky.

Although Anthopoulos will never rule out the possibility of a trade, he concedes the chances of the Jays making an impact move at this point are remote.

"It's hard to make trades in April," Anthopoulos said. "Teams are just getting started. They want to see what they have, and shortstop isn't a deep position in the league to begin with. Anybody who can play the position and give you great offense is probably an All-Star already. Is there anyone we can get who's going to be better than our internal options? Maybe, but it might be marginally better, and you have to factor in what you're giving up. Since this injury is somewhat short-term, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

Teams can never fully prepare for the tangible and emotional gut punch of losing a pivotal player to a serious injury. In May 2011, San Francisco catcher Buster Posey was helped off the field with a career-threatening ankle injury after a home-plate collision with the Marlins' Scott Cousins. The Giants, six games over .500 at the time, remained in first place in the NL West a week into August. But they sputtered down the stretch and finished second in the division, eight games behind Arizona. They went 27-21 with Posey and 59-55 once he got hurt, and Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart assumed the catching duties.

Toronto infielder Mark DeRosa, who played for that San Francisco club, said teams inevitably go through phases when they lose a star player to an injury for an extended period.

"First off, you feel for the player because of the rehab and the mental grind they have to go through to get back," DeRosa said. "Then you feel bad for the team, because you ultimately know what they mean to the team. I think the toughest part is watching Jose or Buster walking around the clubhouse on crutches, knowing how big a piece they are of your success.

"The first couple of days are hard, but as the season progresses you just look forward to getting them back. That's what you have to do in this game. The lineup goes up, the game goes on, time doesn't stop and you just keep rolling. You don't really have another option but to forget."

The Jays have several shortstop alternatives available for cameos. Maicer Izturis' best position is second base, but he has made 164 career starts at short. Then there's Bonifacio, who has 81 starts at shortstop in the big leagues.

Gibbons is hesitant to divvy up the shortstop spot among too many players because it's the one place on the field where continuity is imperative. The shortstop is the designated traffic cop and the glue to the infield, and it's hard to maintain a flow when a different name appears on the lineup card every other night.

Munenori Kawasaki
Kawasaki takes a moment to stretch during a pitching change.

Enter Kawasaki, whose international experience makes up for his lack of major league service time. He played in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and made eight All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan. Kawasaki was released by the Seattle Mariners after hitting .192 in 61 games last season, and Andrew Tinnish, Toronto's assistant GM, brought up his name when the Jays were kicking around some depth options in spring training. He signed a minor league deal in mid-March and began the season with Toronto's Triple-A farm club in Buffalo.

Kawasaki, Bonifacio and Rajai Davis have gone a combined 10-for-54 (.185) in the leadoff spot after Reyes got off to a rousing start (15-for-38, .395) at the top of the order, but Kawasaki has proved adept at small ball with his ability to lay down a bunt, play hit-and-run and eyeball pitches off the corner. He has averaged a whopping 4.61 pitches per plate appearance, albeit in a small sample size.

If the Blue Jays are going to overcome Reyes' absence, the big boys are going to have to ramp up their games to fill the void. That means lots of power from Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Rasmus and Arencibia, and line drives and energetic play from Brett Lawrie and Cabrera.

Gibbons has shown some signs of strain with ejections in the past two games, but he seems well-suited to steering this group through the challenges that lie ahead. As he's quick to point out, he has already been fired once by the Jays, so he wasn't going to lapse into panic mode over the double whammy of a slow start and the Reyes injury.

"If we were the only team it ever happened to, it would be different," Gibbons said, "but it's part of baseball. Look at the Yankees. Nobody has been hit worse than they have, but they're playing good baseball. Good teams overcome it and hang around. Jose is one of our key guys, no question, but the game goes on, and we think we have the depth to survive it. You can't pack it in and think, 'Woe is me.'"

The Jays don't have a lot of postseason experience on their roster, but Darren Oliver, Dickey, Buehrle, DeRosa and Bautista have seen enough and been through enough to provide some guidance and perspective on the challenges of a long season.

"We have a lot of guys who've been through the process before," Bautista said. "It's not their first rodeo. We have a more accomplished, veteran club overall, and that makes us a different club than what I've played with in the past. We have the components you need to be resilient and get over obstacles."

The little shortstop fits right into the mix. Toronto fans have quickly embraced Kawasaki's cross-cultural grit and adopted him as one of their favorites. They chant his name during games and have begun to seek out his jersey in the team gift shop. He possesses the rare knack of bringing a smile to people's faces while barely trying. And for a .203 big league hitter, he sure finds a way to be in the middle of the action.

"The other day, I'm playing third base, he's at short and Maicer Izturis is at second, and we make a pitching change," DeRosa said. "The understanding was a little lacking out there. Where in the world can you have three guys like us come together and carry on a conversation?"

In a post-Jose Reyes world, anything is possible -- right down to a mound confab involving an Ivy League-educated third baseman, a Venezuelan second baseman and a Japanese shortstop. If the Jays go on to survive their shaky start and make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, they just might have a good laugh about it come October.