Commentary

Yanks leave Toronto the better team

Yankees show revamped Blue Jays how to do more with less in weekend series

Updated: April 22, 2013, 12:16 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- The team that won baseball's offseason, by a wide margin, managed to win only one of three games in its own sold-out ballpark all weekend.

And the team that did virtually nothing until the final week of spring training, the one with the roster being held together with adhesive tape and pine tar, is the one leaving Canada with two wins and second-best record in the AL East.

This weekend's series between the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays is exactly the reason why the man keeps insisting that you can't predict baseball.

The Blue Jays added a Cy Young winner, an all-star shortstop, a 2012 MVP candidate and two other top-of-the-rotation caliber starters, plus about $40 million in payroll, this winter.

Over the same period, the Yankees lost more than 150 home runs, their captain, their starting third baseman, first baseman and center fielder, all the while trying to pare about 10 percent from their payroll.

And based on their first meeting of the season, it is the Yankees -- the aging, makeshift, who-are-these-people Yankees -- who looked like the significantly better team.

On Sunday, the Blue Jays offered a glimpse of the kind of club they were expected to be when they salvaged one game of the series with an 8-4 victory over the Yankees, but this is the one they were supposed to win, with the erratic and unreliable Ivan Nova starting.

[+] EnlargeNova
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesIvan Nova allowed four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings against the Blue Jays Sunday.

It was the first two games of the series -- Friday night's 9-4 Yankees win, powered by three Yankee home runs, and Saturday afternoon's 5-3 Yankees win, facilitated by a crushing Blue Jays' error - that left the impression that this year's Toronto may turn out to be last year's Boston Red Sox.

Or, this year's Miami Marlins, the failed team Toronto cannibalized to build their current $120 million roster.

So far, all the revamped Blue Jays have been truly successful at is selling tickets to a win-starved fan base; all three of the games this weekend drew more than 40,000 to the Rogers Center, and the last two sold out the place, drawing crowds of 46,095 and 45,575.

But through 19 games, their record is 8-11, and their place in the division is even worse than it had been for the past five seasons. Right at the bottom.

In fact, at this time last year, the Blue Jays were 10-9, in fourth place and two games out of first place in the AL East; today, they sit in fifth a full five games out. That team finished 73-89, 22 games behind the first-place Yankees.

Of course, it is too early to know where these Blue Jays will finish up. But if nothing else, Toronto's slow start serves to remind us all that in baseball, nothing is won in December, January, February or March, and that while money can always buy performance, it can't guarantee results.

We saw it last year with the Marlins, who excited their fan base with a new ballclub, a new ballpark and a new manager. Now, only the park remains and most nights it sits empty.

We saw it a couple of years ago with the Red Sox, the preseason favorite to turn the AL East race into baseball's equivalent of Secretariat's Belmont Stakes. That didn't end well.

And we're seeing it now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who took on much of Boston's detritus and right now are languishing in fourth place in the NL West, having just ended a six-game losing streak.

Meanwhile, the Yankees, replacing future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter with recent minor-leaguer Eduardo Nunez at shortstop, and plugging holes left by the absence of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson with castoffs such as Kevin Youkilis, Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells, have won nine of their last 11 games and are pushing -- who else? -- the Red Sox for the top spot in the division.

"I think there's an adjustment period when you bring in so many new guys," said Wells, who enjoyed an excellent weekend against the team for which he played his first 12 big-league seasons. "I've seen it before. Sometimes, it takes time for teams to mesh."

The new-look Blue Jays haven't really had a chance to mesh. R.A. Dickey, their showcase pitching acquisition, got lit up in his first start and left his most recent one with neck and back stiffness.

Jose Reyes, their showcase infield addition, suffered a severely sprained ankle and could miss three months.

Jose Bautista, their slugging right-fielder whose wrist injury last year ended their chances to do anything, has already missed eight of the first 19 games this season with back and ankle problems.

"They have the talent, but, in this game, keeping guys healthy is the biggest thing," Wells said. "It's hard to get things going when you have guys out."

By contrast, the Yankees have gotten better than expected performances out of players they were hoping could just help them tread water until their regulars return.

Wells, coming off two nightmarish seasons with the Los Angeles Angels after the Jays gave up on him and his seven-year, $126-million contract, is batting .317 with five home runs and eight RBIs in 16 games as a Yankee. This weekend, he further enraged his old fans with seven hits in the three games, including two home runs, and on Sunday started a spectacular 7-4-3 double play with a leaping catch of Edwin Encarnacion's long drive at the left-field fence.

Travis Hafner, a castoff from the Indians, is hitting .319 with five homers and 10 RBIs. Youkilis, who sat out on Sunday after experiencing back spasms on Saturday, is hitting .295 filling in for A-Rod and occasionally Teixeira.

Still, the Jays had to win at least one game at home, and with Nova turning in what has become his typical performance -- five innings, seven hits, four earned runs, a handful of walks and a fistful of hair torn out of a manager's head -- Sunday's game was predictable.

After the Yankees took a 3-2 lead because of a sudden fifth-inning attack of wildness by Blue Jays' starter Josh Johnson, another acquisition from the Marlins, Nova and his cohorts, Boone Logan and David Phelps, conspired to give back the lead, and then some, in a four-run bottom of the fifth.

It started, as most bad things do, with a leadoff walk -- the fourth Nova surrendered in the game -- and ended when Phelps, who was so effective out of the bullpen last season, surrendered a two-run double to Brett Lawrie and an RBI single to Melky Cabrera, who vied for the 2012 NL MVP as a San Francisco Giant until he was found to have been partaking of some banned assistance.

By the time J.P. Arencibia rocketed a Phelps fastball beyond the center-field fence in the seventh inning to complete the scoring, the Yankees seemed to be looking beyond this one to their next stop, St. Petersburg, where they will play three games against the Tampa Bay Rays beginning Monday night.

"Our goal is to take every series and if you can do that, you'll be in good shape come September," said a not-terribly-upset Joe Girardi, the Yankees' manager. "It's not the way you want to leave, but we won two out of three here. This place can be tough to play and our guys did a pretty good job."

In fact, aside from the verbal abuse heaped on Wells each time he came to bat or took his position in the outfield, the Rogers Centre turned out to be a rather easy place for the Yankees to play this weekend.

Still, Girardi knows it is too early to form a judgment on a team based on three early-season games.

"They have some offensive weapons, no doubt about it," he said. "They're going to score some runs."

"They're going to be pretty dangerous, that's for sure," Wells agreed. "Hopefully they don't get into any long streaks or things like that. But there's nothing automatic in this game, that's for sure."

In baseball, the only automatic, we are reminded once again, is that the accomplishments of December, January and February often have little to do with what happens between April and October.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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