11793 – Here’s to 2009!!

Blue Jays end season with big win
BALTIMORE — It’s not difficult to decipher what went wrong for the Blue Jays this season. In the early stages of the 2008 campaign, Toronto labored in the batter’s box, and that made for an intimidating game of catchup down the stretch.
On Sunday afternoon, the Blue Jays showed that they’ve made some positive strides in that department, enjoying a 10-1 romp over the Orioles in their season finale at Camden Yards. That early hole proved too deep, though, and Toronto is now peering toward 2009 rather than moving on to the postseason.
“Hopefully, next year, if we’re going back to Toronto [after the season finale], we’re going back for a playoff game,” said manager Cito Gaston, while his players packed their suitcases and prepared to welcome the coming winter.
The finale in Baltimore served as another reminder of the Blue Jays’ potential. There was stellar pitching — the one constant of Toronto’s season — in the form of a strong seven-inning performance from Jesse Litsch. There was also plenty of offense, led by a pair of home runs by Vernon Wells.
It was that combination that made for an easy victory. Throughout much of this season, the Blue Jays struggled to have both elements working in unison. Often, Toronto’s dominant pitching went wasted in light of low run support. And on the days the bats did show up, it wasn’t always enough.
It wasn’t until the Jays’ season was on life support in late August that the offense, pitching and defense all clicked, producing a 10-game winning streak, the longest such run for Toronto since 1999. That push temporarily put the Jays in the American League Wild Card discussion, but a fourth-place finish in the East was the end result.
“We just didn’t get on the same page early on,” first baseman Lyle Overbay said. “I think when we started winning all those games — 10 in a row — we did get on the same page. All three cylinders were clicking.”
The pitching staff rarely was the issue.
Toronto finished with an 86-76 record, marking only the third time in the past 10 years that the team achieved at least that many wins, and the club led baseball with a 3.49 staff ERA. That represented the second-lowest team ERA in franchise history and the group’s 1,184 strikeouts established a new club record.
Against the Orioles (68-93), Litsch yielded just one run over his seven innings, scattering three hits and ending with five strikeouts and one walk in the win. The victory gave the 23-year-old right-hander a 13-9 record this year and lowered his season ERA to 3.58. Litsch was one of three Jays starters to win at least 13 games this year.
“That’s definitely good going into next year,” Litsch said of Sunday’s win. “Not just for me, but for all of us.”
The offense will prove integral in 2009, considering the pitching staff includes more than its share of question marks heading into next year.
Toronto is at risk of losing starter A.J. Burnett to free agency, if he opts out of his contract, and the club will likely be without Shaun Marcum (right elbow) until 2010. Right-hander Dustin McGowan, who had season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in July, is expected to be out until at least May.
Needless to say, depending on what the Blue Jays do to acquire pitching help this winter, the offense may have to bail out its staff more often in ’09 than was required this year.
“I think our pitching has, obviously, led this team the last couple years,” Wells said. “Offensively, that’s where we need to turn things around and support those guys a little better.”
Wells did just that for Litsch, slamming two home runs to give the center fielder a team-high 20 on the season. The Blue Jays also received a solo shot from Overbay, giving Toronto 126 long balls this year. That total represents the lowest power output by the club since the Jays belted just 106 homers in 1982.
The 10 runs scored by the Blue Jays on Sunday gave the team 714 this season, marking the fewest in a campaign since Toronto plated 654 in 1997. The Jays also ended with a .264 team average, a .331 on-base percentage and a .399 slugging percentage — the last figure being the lowest by Toronto since ’97 as well.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though.
The offense did gather steam after Gaston replaced former manager John Gibbons on June 20. Toronto held a 35-39 record upon Gaston’s arrival and had hit just .231 with runners in scoring position with 49 homers in the first 74 games. With Gaston at the helm, the Jays went 51-37, launched 77 homers and hit .285 with runners in scoring position.
“Any time you make a change like that, something’s going to change,” said Wells. “You realize that you weren’t doing enough, and you consequently ended up getting a good man fired.
“A new philosophy came in. It was more, just go up there and get your pitch and get to swinging. Guys responded and, unfortunately, it took a firing to do that.”
The offense under Gaston produced the type of numbers Toronto hoped it’d put up when the season began.
“I think everybody knew that that was there, the offense,” third baseman Scott Rolen said. “There’s a lot of talented offensive players on the team, and everybody talked about, ‘It’s a matter of time.’
“I guess everybody was right, but maybe the timing was a little too late.”
That’s why Gaston and the players stressed that opening 2009 the way the club ended this season is important.
“I think we have to get off to a good start,” Gaston said. “Early in the year, the problem we had was no hitting. I think it’s getting better. We’d like to get it to a point where we’re more consistent with scoring runs. That’s what I think we really have to do.”
Next year’s Opening Day is more than six months away for the Blue Jays. That gives Toronto plenty of time to sort out what went awry in 2008 and to enjoy the few bright spots within this trying season.
That includes Sunday’s win.
“It was nice to finish up with a win today,” Gaston said. “The guys played hard, and they finished up good. I’m very proud of them.”