Despite adversity, Ricciardi remains confident in Jays
It wasn't so much a losing streak as it was a frightening free fall. For nine games, through three cities, across two countries, for the first 10 days of a month, the Toronto Blue Jays couldn't win for losing.
Every day, the only suspense seemed to be which would happen first: another loss on the field or another crushing injury?
When the streak hit seven, the Jays' demoralized manager, John Gibbons, said, "I think we've hit bottom."
After they lost eight in a row came news that closer B.J. Ryan, thought to be sidelined for two months with a strained elbow ligament, actually required Tommy John surgery and was gone for the season.
When the streak hit nine and featured a second straight subpar start from ace Roy Halladay, the bad news came the next day: Halladay, diagnosed with appendicitis, would miss the next four-to-six weeks.
Even the night on which the streak finally, mercifully, came to an end featured a hamstring injury to third baseman Troy Glaus, who, naturally, had already missed time earlier in the season with an ankle injury.
Still, against all odds -- and, perhaps, logic -- general manager J.P.Ricciardi remains steadfast.
"We're here to win games," he said after the Jays had taken two of three from Tampa Bay over the weekend. "We're not going to let a nine-game sample size make or break our season. We lost seven in a row last year and still won 87 games. There's a lot of baseball left to go."
Only a few days ago, when the Jays seemed to be the baseball embodiment of Murphy's Law, that would have seemed less like a promise and more like a threat. The Jays were outmanned and outclassed against the Red Sox. They weren't just swept; they were steamrolled, losing by a collective 27-5 score.
Over the nine-game skid, they were outscored 72-26.
Even then, when some columnists in Toronto were suggesting that the 2008 season was arriving ahead of schedule, Ricciardi dug in his heels.
"We're not panicking," he said. "For us to quit on the season would be really irresponsible on our part. There's still better than four months to go and we still haven't played our best baseball."
That, of course, is a huge understatement. The injuries began early, with Ryan's troubles first flaring up in spring training and designated eighth-inning set-up man Brandon League developing shoulder issues over the winter. Soon, outfielder Reed Johnson and catcher Gregg Zaun went down. Before long, Halladay joined them on the sidelines.
In short order, then, the Jays had lost their left fielder/leadoff man, starting catcher, closer, best set-up pitcher and No.1 starter. Few teams can handle that kind of roster decimation.
After vaulting over the Red Sox to finish in second place in the American League East last year, the Blue Jays thought if things broke right this year, they could challenge for a playoff spot. In the cold, hard light of reality, however, expectations have been scaled back.
"We're just trying to get through May,'' said Ricciardi, "and get as close to .500 as we can. We built this team with one design over the winter. Now we've got to adjust. Things happen over the course of the season and you just adjust."
It's helped that ownership has been supportive. President and CEO Paul Godfrey gave public votes of confidence to Ricciardi and Gibbons.
"Our ownership has been great," enthused Ricciardi. "They kind of leave us alone and that's not the case in some other cities. They understand that injuries are part of the game. They haven't lost confidence in us."
Ownership's support extended to Ricciardi even after the GM revealed that he had intentionally misled the media about the nature of Ryan's spring training injury (Ricciardi had said it was a back issue, not an elbow problem).
Just as the losing streak began gaining steam, Ricciardi's personal integrity became an issue. It wasn't the kind of diversionary tactic he had hoped for.
"What bothers me most," he said, "is the wins and losses and how we play the game. I don't really care what the media thinks of me, especially people who don't know what's going on."
Ricciardi swears that things will soon get better, if only because they can't possibly get much worse. In a few weeks, Johnson is set to return, followed in short order by Zaun and then Halladay.
In the meantime, as they attempt to swim to the surface, the Blue Jays will try to learn some things about their younger players, including pitchers Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Casey Janssen. On Tuesday, the Jays will reach all the way down to Double-A New Hampshire to start Jesse Litsch against the Orioles.
"Out of adversity comes opportunity," Ricciardi said.
It's helped that outside of Boston, no other team has caught fire in the division. The Orioles and Yankees hover around .500, ensuring that the entire pack won't run off and hide from the Jays during their dip.
"I'm very optimistic about what's in place," Ricciardi said. "I understand the reality of what we're facing and I'm not na´ve enough to think that there won't be some consequences. But this is too good a group not to get something out of this season.
"I don't think we're going to put up the white flag, or have a fire sale or start playing for '08. My faith has never wavered. If I walk around like Chicken Little, then I'm not a very good leader. I'm trying to help us get through this and I believe we will."
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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