ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.—The Blue Jays, the team baseball fans in Toronto fell in love with last season, on Friday overcame the strikeout curse that has staggered them thus far this season.
The Jays' offence has been whiffing at a prolific rate and has been a punchless version of the homer-happy crew of 2015. But those big bats came to life in a 6-1 win over Tampa at Tropicana Field.
Four Toronto homers sunk a Rays team that didn't quite let the Jays forget about all those strikeouts — Toronto batters still went down swinging eight times, but that was actually better than the per game average (9.5) entering the game.
Michael Saunders led the homer barrage, clipping two of them, showing an excellent all-around game that was taken from him a year ago when his season was prematurely ended in early May by the lingering effects of a freak knee injury suffered in spring training.
Saunders is also hitting over .350 in nine games since manager John Gibbons placed him atop the batting order. This is shine time for the Canadian-born left-handed hitter, and it's part of the good news that surfaced in Friday's win, which also broke a three-game losing streak.
Josh Donaldson, the only player in the majors to lead his team in hits, homers, RBI and runs, tagged a Drew Smyly fastball for a tape-measure homer that got Toronto rolling and feeling like it was 2015.
Donaldson's homer struck the catwalk above the outfield at Tropicana Field and would have travelled an estimated 445 feet had it not done so.
More promising signs came from Ryan Goins' first homer of the year and a return to domination for starter Aaron Sanchez, who answered up a sub-par outing in his previous start with seven shutout innings (six hits, six strikeouts and no runner advanced past second after the first inning.)
Strikeouts, though, are not exactly a fading trend for the Jays. They managed eight more Friday, including two by Russell Martin, which extended his streak to a near-record tying nine in a row (he snapped it with a single in his third at-bat of the game.)
But Toronto's lineup is all about power, all about steam rolling the opposition. The strikeout rash appears to the result of the club's 'all-power, all-pull' swing mentality tied to their gaudy stats the past few seasons. They'll ride it out, believing their post-season worthy lineup from 2015 will bounce back in short order, which is still a good bet for now.
"Hitting in front of our guys (Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki) helps me a lot," said Saunders, who now has 55 career homers — 18 of them off left-handed pitching. "One through nine in our order, I really believe we'll get it going this year, I'm sure of it."
Martin came within one punchout of tying the major-league record of 10 consecutive strikeouts set by Rick Ankiel in his reincarnation as a hitter with Houston in 2013.
Also from Elias Friday night: Cincinnati's Adam Duvall had reached eight consecutive strikeouts Friday night, one shy of the National League record of nine shared by Mark Reynolds (2007), Eric Davis (1987) and Adolfo Phillips (1966).
Toronto entered the game having reached double digits in strikeouts in 11 of their first 23 games. Friday marked game No. 24, and the additional eight Ks put them at 225 so far this season.
The 225 strikeouts are the most Toronto has boarded through 24 games, and that's a staggering reality for a team that finished last season with 127 more runs than any other team in the majors.
Toronto also entered Friday's outing averaging 9.5 strikeouts per game. When they hit a major-league leading 232 home runs a year ago, they registered the fifth-lowest strikeout total (1,151) in the majors.
NOTE: Jays second baseman Devon Travis, out with a shoulder injury, took five at-bats in an extended spring training game Friday and said he "felt good." Travis may play his first full game next week but does not have a definitive timetable for a return to the Jays.