Are Toronto & Boston Dead For The American League Playoffs?

Is there any hope left for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox in the American League wild-card race? The two AL East teams were on the fringes of contention when the week began, hanging 5 and 4.5 games out respectively. But each has missed significant opportunities to capitalize. The Jays were swept by Tampa Bay when the last three games gave Toronto a chance to gain ground on one of the five teams that are packed within a game or so of the two wild-card spots in the American League playoffs. Boston wrapped up a 10-game homestand by losing two of three to Texas and finishing 4-6 for the sequence of games that was supposed to kickstart an August push. Both teams began 2012 with October expectations. TheSportsNotebook examines what went wrong and whether we should indeed stick a fork in both teams…

Toronto is seven games back, and having to leapfrog five other teams is just too much to ask. The Blue Jays have been hit with some big injuries to their starting rotation. The area that’ s always the sticking point with this team lost Kyle Drabek and Dustin Hutchison for the year and has been missing Brandon Morrow. But those injuries don’t explain Ricky Romero’s sudden inability to get anyone out. The lefty who was on the verge of becoming one of the American League’s top starters has a 5.47 ERA in 23 starts. So much for manager John Farrell having a stopper.

The offense has been hurt by the failure of Kelly Johnson to rejuvenate his career at second base and shortstop Yunel Escobar falling to earth after a good year in ’11. Colby Rasmus can’t get on base consistently. J.P. Arencibia has the same problem, but the young catcher has at least shown some power, slugging .466 and he’s been hot since the All-Star break. Edwin Encarcion had a big year and Jose Bautista was rolling along until a wrist injury derailed him a few weeks ago. If we had until now to officially say Toronto is dead, then Bautista’s injury was the moment that eliminated any doubt this day was coming.

If you look ahead on the schedule it doesn’t get easy for Toronto. From now until September 7 every game they play will be against a team either leading its division or within a game of the wild-card. If you’re an optimist, you can see this as Toronto’s last-ditch stand. More realistically, this is the point when the season completely spirals out of control, especially now that third baseman Brett Lawrie has joined Bautista on the disabled list. And the September 7 game that marks a break from the contenders? It’s against Boston. At Fenway.

Of course playing Boston in Fenway has been a pleasant experience for opponents this year, as the Red Sox are sub-.500 in the shadow of the Green Monster. Injuries have been a problem for the Sox this year, as half the everyday lineup spent a good chunk of time on the disabled list. But like Toronto, Boston has to point the finger at those who were healthy and should have performed, but didn’t.

Adrian Gonzalez is swinging a good bat now, and his numbers have moved back to respectability (.353 OBP, .465 slugging), but the power is a very recent phenomena and it might be too little, too late. Dustin Pedroia has been hurt, but also unproductive when he’s been in the lineup. The decision to bat Mike Aviles leadoff, with his .283 on-base percentage is an act of almost incomprehensible stupidity on the part of Bobby Valentine.

But no one has failed Boston like Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, which makes the just-concluded series against Texas oh-so-appropriate. The Sox won the opener and has the two aces going Tuesday and Wednesday. Even allowing how good the Rangers are, this would be normally be a time Boston smells sweep—at worst, a series win. Instead Lester and Beckett both get lit up and another chance to gain ground disappears. The combined W-L record of the “stoppers” is 10-19. Lester’s ERA is 5.36, Beckett’s is 4.97. And unlike Gonzalez, there’s no sign of things getting better. Each has been substantially worse since the All-Star break.

With a margin of 5.5 games and four teams to leapfrog, no one is making any October plans revolving around baseball in Boston. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say they’re dead. But a 10-game road trip starts tonight, and after four games against collapsing Cleveland, the Sox visit surging Baltimore and then go to Yankee Stadium. If we don’t sound the death knell today, it likely happens by the time that trip concludes on August 19.