After back-to-back ALCS appearances, Blue Jays stumble
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By IAN HARRISON
TORONTO (AP) A potent offense and steady starting pitching helped the Toronto Blue Jays make back-to-back ALCS appearances in each of the last two years.
The Blue Jays didn't get either of those elements in 2017, leading to their first losing record in four years.
Two seasons after leading the majors with a whopping 891 runs, Toronto finished last in the AL with 693.
Last season, Toronto had four pitchers make at least 30 starts, while right-hander Marco Estrada made 29. This year, Toronto used a club-record 14 starting pitchers, with only two starting 30 times.
"It was a battle all year," manager John Gibbons said. "Slow start, regrouped. We battled all year to get back in it, we just never could."
Toronto stumbled to a 1-9 start, sinking to 6-17 before recovering with an 18-10 mark in May. Still, in seven attempts at evening their record, the Blue Jays never once reached .500.
"Every time we started getting some momentum we would stub our toe in some way, whether being an injury, whether maybe not coming out one day and swinging the bats the way that we're capable of doing, or not playing defense, or not pitching," third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "Throughout the course of this season as a whole, we weren't able to play all the phases consistent enough."
Some things to know about the Blue Jays as they head into the offseason:
Perhaps Donaldson and right-hander Aaron Sanchez best typify Toronto's season. Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP, was slowed by a strained calf during spring training and again early in the season, missing 38 games. His power stroke didn't return until the second half, with 22 of his 33 home runs coming in August and September. Sanchez finished as the AL ERA leader in a breakout 2016, but was plagued by blister issues all season, spending four frustrating stints on the DL before finally being shut down after just eight starts.
Left-hander J.A. Happ, catcher Russell Martin, second baseman Devon Travis and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki also missed significant time with injuries. Gibbons said the team is confident Tulowitzki will recover from ligament damage to his right ankle suffered in a July 29 baserunning injury. Tulowitzki has missed at least 30 games in six straight seasons. Travis, meanwhile, underwent a second surgery on his troublesome right knee and missed more than 100 games, leaving his durability in doubt.
STRO SHOW SHINES
One of the few bright spots for the Blue Jays was right-hander Marcus Stroman, who topped 200 innings for the second straight season and posted a 3.09 ERA, fourth-best in the AL. Still, personal satisfaction was no solace for Stroman after playing deep into the past two Octobers.
"Obviously it's not where we wanted to be as a team, making the playoffs the previous two years," Stroman said. "It's a letdown."
With a strong core of stars returning, there is reason to believe the Blue Jays can bounce back in 2018. Donaldson has one year left before he is eligible for free agency. Switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak is expected to return after posting a career-best 38 home runs. The youthful trio of Stroman, Sanchez and closer Roberto Osuna are all eligible for arbitration.
"I'm sure there will be some adjustments," Gibbons said. "I mean, there needs to be. But your overall core is still pretty solid, no doubt."
BYE BYE, BAUTISTA?
One star who is unlikely to return is slugger Jose Bautista, who hit just .203 with 23 homers and 65 RBIs while setting a Blue Jays single-season record with a career-worst 170 strikeouts. Toronto is expected to buy out Bautista's $17 million mutual option and make him a free agent. In his 10 seasons with the Blue Jays, Bautista twice led the majors in home runs and delivered the famous `bat-flip' blast that helped beat Texas in the 2015 ALDS.
"He helped put the team back on the map," Gibbons said. "He was the face of the franchise for a number of years. He turned into one of the best players in baseball while he was here."
AP baseball writer Mike Fitzpatrick and AP freelance writers Jake Karpin and Scott Orgera in New York contributed to this story.
Updated October 2, 2017