Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is as wonderful a ballplayer as you’re likely to see, but it’s always something, isn’t it? And now, with the news that he’s out, you might wonder if the Jays are going to pull off an AL East upset after all, because with three weeks to go and 20 games to play, they might still have to fend off a late-season challenge from the equally banged-up Yankees.
If you’re a pessimist, the news that Tulowitzki is out for at least two weeks with a broken scapula was something you might have been waiting on. Until he was hurt Saturday in a collision with center fielder Kevin Pillar, this was Tulo’s first shot at a relatively injury-free season since 2011, just his fourth in nine full big league campaigns. Thanks to the timing, he’ll stay off the disabled list this year, but nobody’s counting this as anything less than a major injury, as it puts at risk the chance Tulo has to help Toronto win the AL East and do some damage in the postseason in just a little more than three weeks.
In the meantime, where does this leave Toronto’s chances to keep on rolling after taking three of four games in their showdown series with the Yankees? Given Tulowitzki’s extensive injury history, hoping for him to be a quick healer might be a bit much to ask. For the time being, the Blue Jays will have to rely on a defensively excellent combination of Ryan Goins and Cliff Pennington at shortstop and second base. That’s good news for their defense, but even allowing for Tulo’s struggles adapting to big league life at the plate at a lower altitude than Coors Field, on offense it means losing a shortstop with 193 career home runs and an .877 OPS to instead rely on both Goins (.651 OPS this year) and Pennington (.556).
Keep in mind, the Jays have been snakebit in their middle infield all season (even before they had to get Pennington from the D-backs). Consider this litany of setbacks the organization has had to overcome since spring training:
Veteran Maicer Izturis was supposed to be in the mix for starting at second base on Opening Day, but they lost him first to a groin injury and then season-ending shoulder surgery before he played a single big league game.
Devon Travis made that Opening Day start and looked like a steal with an .859 OPS in 62 games, but his own shoulder injury has kept him out of action since July 28, and though he started swinging a bat on Thursday, his return during the regular season or October seems extremely unlikely.
Initial starting shortstop Jose Reyes missed the better part of a month with a broken rib before he returned and played well enough to make a trade for Tulo plausible for the Rockies.
Journeyman Steve Tolleson, a good platoon threat with a career .817 OPS versus lefties, was outrighted from the 40-man roster and hasn’t been able to play in Triple-A since late June; he’s been accused of being a quitter by GM Alex Anthopolous and remains in transactional purgatory on Buffalo’s “temporarily inactive” list.
They lost infielder Danny Valencia -- a sometime second baseman -- to an Athletics waiver claim on August 3.
And now they’ve lost Tulo for a length of time to be determined, making it an even half-dozen infielders Toronto has had to excuse for extended periods of time.
Despite all of the infield mayhem, Anthopoulos has been on top of the situation and aggressive in addressing his team’s issues with infield depth. Trading for Darwin Barney on Sunday morning was just the latest instance. Trading for Pennington, a veteran who can play short and second who also has postseason experience, after they had lost Travis and Valencia and knew they had issues with Tolleson, looks especially important now. And while getting Barney won’t help them in the postseason -- he’s ineligible, having been added to their 40-man roster after Sept. 1 -- it does give manager John Gibbons plenty of tactical alternatives during the next three weeks. Don’t be surprised if you see Gibbons do a few double-switches (to delay a middle-infield sub from getting an at-bat) and pinch hitting with the unused half of his first-base platoon of Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello.
That’s going to be important because even though the Jays are leading the league in scoring with more than 5.5 runs per game, they’re very front-loaded, with defensive specialists Goins, Pennington and center fielder Pillar making up the back third of their order. Sunday’s lineup provided a reminder of how shallow the lineup can be; perhaps exploiting the first three wins in the series with the Yankees, Gibbons gave DH Edwin Encarnacion the day off as well as spotting Josh Thole at catcher for Russell Martin with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on the mound.
The result? After winning the first three games of the series playing their brand of baseball by a combined score of 30-17, the Jays suffered a 5-0 shutout loss spun by Masahiro Tanaka and friends to bring the Yankees back within 3½ games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East race.
Can the Bombers catch the Blue Jays, even with Mark Teixeira out for the season? Of course they can, especially now. Timing and matchups might be key before these two teams face each other again next week, because the Jays might expect to expand their lead facing the listless Braves and then the Red Sox while the Yankees face a still-competitive Rays team and then the NL East-leading Mets. But say the Jays go 10-9 -- the Yankees would need to go 14-6 in their last 20. Is that tough? Yes. Impossible? Far from it, which is why we’ll need to see if the Jays take Tulo’s absence in stride, notch a good week and face the Yankees again with an expanded lead already achieved.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.