Series Preview: Toronto Blue Jays @ Tampa Bay Rays (April 3-6)

It’s time to get excited. The baseball season is upon us, and we here at Jays From the Couch aim to give you an in-depth preview of each Blue Jays series throughout the season. 

 

After a stellar spring training which saw the your Toronto Blue Jays play to an excellent 17-6 record, it is time to start the games which matter. The 2016 season kicks off today in Tampa with a four game series against versus the Rays in the notorious “house of horrors” that is Tropicana Field.

Last season the club had an overall record of 9-10 against the Rays, with a woeful 3-6 record on the road. It should be noted; however, that 2 of those losses came in the last two games of the season, once the Jays had already clinched the division. With the last being a short rest mercy start for, Mark Buehrle, in trying to help him reach his fifteenth consecutive 200 inning season. Which turns out may have been his last appearance in an MLB game. If the Blue Jays wish to kick the 2016 campaign off on the right foot, shaking the hold that “The Trop” has over the team will be imperative.

Game 1

M. Stroman RHP (2015: 4-0 1.67 ERA) vs. C. Archer RHP (2015: 12-13 3.23 ERA) 

The first game of the series will see both teams send their respective aces to the mound. Toronto will send their young ever-excitable RHP Marcus Stroman up against Tampa’s impressive All-Star Chris Archer in what should be a well pitched and exciting matchup.

Stroman, has 2 career starts against the Rays (1-1, 5.73 ERA) both coming in 2014. As seen from the career stats versus the Rays, the batters in their current lineup have had some measurable success, albeit over a very small sample size. While notable, these stats should be looked upon with some skepticism considering his approach and arsenal has changed dramatically since his inaugural season.

Stroman Rays

Archer, has been successful against the powerful Jays lineup (5-3 3.26 ERA) over fifteen career starts, averaging 8.4 k/9 over 91 innings. While typically tough on Toronto, he was touched up for 10H, 9ER, including 2 HR during his last start in Toronto. With his pedigree it would be wise to view that as more of an aberration than the norm.

Player(s) to Watch:

Rays: Former Colorado Rockies outfielder, Corey Dickerson. Despite having zero plate appearance against the Blue Jays, he does bring some power to the lineup that will need to be kept in check.

Blue Jays: First baseman/DH, Justin Smoak, should be in the lineup with a right-handed pitcher on the mound, and has put together a .316 average over nineteen at-bats while facing Archer with a homerun and three runs batted in.

Outlook: Being it’s April the difference in this game could come down to the bullpen. It’s doubtful either team will be looking for their star pitchers to go much past the one hundred pitch mark. With Archer owning a 5.88 ERA in the sixth inning versus the Blue Jays in 2015, it would be a good time to keep an eye on his pitch count. With the lineup turning over for the third time it could be when the powerful lineup breaks out.

Game 2

R. Dickey RHP (2015: 11-11 3.91 ERA) vs. D. Smyly LHP (2015: 5-2 3.11 ERA)

The second game of the series on Saturday will see Toronto’s knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey, take on Tampa’s Drew Smyly. Dickey, notorious for slow starts in April the last two seasons, and Smyly who missed most of 2015 with shoulder issues, will be looking to get their respective seasons off on the right foot.

Dickey has been solid (6-6, 4.00 ERA) against the Rays in his three years with the Blue Jays, but has seen his share of troubles at Tropicana, posting a 2-4 record with a 4.55 ERA in eight starts during this period. While the current Rays lineup has posted a .249 batting average against Dickey, he has managed to limit them to just two home runs. Keeping balls in the park and letting the Jays’ excellent defense do their part will be key.

Smyly, once thought of as a top prospect with the Detroit Tigers, and acquired in the David Price trade has been missing in action over the last two seasons for the Rays. Shoulder problems have limited the lefty to only nineteen, but very effective starts (8-3 2.52 ERA), with only two career starts against the Blue Jays (1-0 1.10 ERA) during that time.

Player(s) to Watch:

Rays: Franchise third baseman, Evan Longoria will need to pitched to carefully for this game. His laid back, smooth approach has helped him have some success facing the knuckle ball with a career .828 OPS over 43 at-bats.

Blue Jays: The obvious choice is, Josh Donaldson. Anytime someone has five hits, in eights at-bats, with a 1.917 OPS, you are forced to pay attention. The sample size is small, but it is obvious Donaldson is seeing the ball well from Smyly, and I don’t see any reason for this not to continue. Can you hear him whispering “Imma get mine” from the clubhouse?

Outlook: This is a difficult game to predict (as most are) due to lack of predictability with both pitchers. The knuckleball, in addition to the Blue Jays’ penchant for beating left-handed pitchers into submission, could lead to a high scoring game. If that is the case, it’s not a game the Rays will want any part of, as not many teams can afford to bang it out with the Jays lineup. And it could prove costly to their bullpen for the rest of the series.

Game 3

A. Sanchez RHP (2015: 7-6, 3.22 ERA) vs. J. Odorizzi RHP (2015: 9-9 3.35 ERA)

The third game of the series will see hard throwing Aaron Sanchez toe the rubber against another impressive young arm in Tampa’s Jake Odorizzi. Sanchez will be looking to prove he deserves the rotation spot he earned during spring. Odorizzi will be looking to build on his excellent 2015 campaign, which saw him take a step forward in his career to fulfill his prospect projections as a solid rotation addition.

Sanchez’ lone start against the Rays was only his second in his MLB career, in which he put up (5.1 IP, 3ER) in an early April loss. His remaining appearances were from the bullpen, where he was as dominant against the Rays. With this being his first start after earning a rotation spot, it will prove important for him to stay under control to continue the momentum he built during March.

Odorizzi, overall has been average during his career versus the Blue Jays with a (2-2 3.96 ERA) record; however against the Jays lineup in 2015, he was (1-2 5.71 ERA) battered over 17.1 innings for eleven runs, four home runs and eleven walks in three starts. With the lineup returning intact from last season, including a healthy Michael Saunders and Troy Tulowitzki, the RHP will need to work ahead if he desires to get into the later innings.

Player(s) to Watch:

Rays: Kevin Kiermaier, though with only two at-bats facing Sanchez, does have 2 hits, including one double. With him being left-handed, his speed could pose a problem.

Blue Jays: Russell Martin is a player to focus on this game. He will play an integral part in guiding Sanchez through his first start of the young season.

Outlook: Should the Jays lineup follow the same recipe they used to get to Odorizzi last season, this game could be a lopsided affair. Should Sanchez be in the position for a quality start (6IP, 3ER) he and the team should be on the positive side of this one.

Game 4

J. Happ (2015: 11-8 3.61 ERA) vs. M. Moore LHP (2015: 3-4, 5.43 ERA)

The final game of the opening series will see Toronto send out lefty J.A. Happ, to tangle with Tampa’s other lefty, Matt Moore. Happ will be looking to build on his late season success from 2015, with his return to the Blue Jays rotation. Expectations should, however, be tempered somewhat on this front. If he can be a solid mid-rotation addition it should prove to be plenty with this lineup. While Moore – who has looked great this spring – is looking to rebound from an uneven return following UCL replacement surgery last season.

Happ, has not had the best of times versus the Rays at Tropicana. While his career numbers (2-2 4.50 ERA) over nine starts look decent, his starts in Tampa have been the opposite. Over five starts, Happ, has posted (1-1 7.64 ERA) averaging just above three innings per. If the revamped approach picked up in Pittsburgh is for real, hopefully it can help bring those numbers down to respectable levels.

Moore, has built a solid career resume against the Blue Jays (5-2, 3.04) in nine career starts, which includes a (6IP, 1 ER) win over them in the final game of 2015, after being spotted a nine run lead in the first inning. Like his counterpart in this game, Moore, had a solid spring training, and looks close to regaining his previous form.

Player(s) to Watch:

Rays: Free agent signing, Steve Pearce, has hit Happ hard over his career with three home runs, nine RBI with a 1.356 OPS. I would look for Pearce being in the lineup on Tuesday in hopes of continuing his success.

Blue Jays: Russell Martin (in seven at-bats) has two home runs, with six runs batted in versus Moore. In addition, the right-handed heavy lineup could make the day a long one for the lefty as he has not fared well in the past against the middle of the lineup.

Outlook: As with game three, the Blue Jays should breakout again with the bats. Happ, like Sanchez before him, should come out on the positive side of this match-up with a quality start (6IP, 3 ER). With an off day following this game, the bullpen should have no issue picking up the final three innings.

Series Prediction: The Blue Jays should, at minimum, come away from this series at 2-2. However with the matchups being as they are, if they get solid pitching they could easily end up at 3-1, and heading back to Toronto for the Home Opener.

 

 

*Stats provided from ESPN (click on each career sheet to take you the original)

 

 

*Feature Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III under CC BY-SA 2.0

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W Black

Wade is a long time baseball fan who has been involved with the game for over 30 years. Including as a former college player, amateur pitching coach, and blogger.