Jays running basepaths more
Team emulating aggressive National League style of play
ARLINGTON -- It has been a decade since the Blue Jays led the Major Leagues in stolen bases for the first and only time in franchise history. But after swiping four more to help win Friday's series opener in Texas, no club in either league could match Toronto's total of 13 steals through 10 games entering play Saturday."It doesn't surprise me," said Jays catcher Gregg Zaun, credited on Friday with his first pilfer of home on the back end of a perfectly executed double steal. "We've been running like fools all year. But we're not running just to run. We're trying to be smart about it and put pressure on the defense." The Jays are on pace to steal 211 bases. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only time Toronto ever led the Majors (or the American League) in steals was 1998, when Shannon Stewart's 51 thefts led the team, with the team tallying a total of 184. Last year's team finished with only 57 steals, which ranked 13th among the 14 AL teams and 27th among the 30 teams in the Majors. Toronto hasn't stolen more than 72 bases in the last six years. But at their current pace, the 2008 Jays would steal 72 before the end of May. "I think it's surprising, when you look at our past," center fielder Vernon Wells said. "But in Spring Training, we talked about being a little more aggressive and trying to press the issue a little bit. It's only going to help your offense if you're successful in doing it. And when you're in our division, you've got to score as many runs as possible." The Jays are emulating a style of play more common to the National League, where the absence of a designated hitter and the need to be creative with pitchers batting ninth tend to put baserunners in motion. In recent years, that style has proven successful in the American League as well, particularly as employed by Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former NL catcher. His hard-charging club has won the AL West in three of the last four seasons. "The Angels, by far, are the most aggressive team in the American League, when it comes to running the bases," Wells said. "They're probably followed by the Twins, and those are two of the most successful organizations over the last few years." It's not always possible to slug with the likes of the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers, so the Jays' new hybrid approach to offense might just get them better mileage in the East Division race. "A lot of clubs in the American League get caught up waiting for the big inning," Zaun said. "We've got some guys who can hit the ball deep. But for us, it's also important to win however we need to. We're using the hit-and-run more than ever before. We're pushing the envelope on the basepaths when running. We're putting pressure on the defense. And when you do that, they make mistakes once in a while. "We'll have our games, just like the Angels do, where sometimes you run yourself into some outs. But more often than not, it's the right way to play. You can't just sit around waiting to hit, because hitting is a failure-oriented business as it is." The new emphasis on a pressure offense is also, frankly, more enjoyable for the Jays' hitters. "I think it is a lot more fun, instead of just sitting around waiting for a three-run homer," Wells said. "It's fun to get out there and not just worry about the conversation with the first baseman, but worry about trying to get a good jump. It just makes you that much more in tune to the game itself. "That's how we all grew up playing, looking for every opportunity to get to the next base. That's kind of how it is right now." It's not as if manager John Gibbons and his staff have tried to reinvent the wheel this season. The makeup of this year's roster simply has the versatility to give opponents a different offensive look, and pose new challenges to contain it. "We have some guys who can run, who are willing to run, and who are willing to sacrifice themselves at the plate if hit-and-runs are called upon," Wells said. "Up and down the lineup, we have to be ready to do whatever we're called upon to do in that situation. I think we're all trying to look at the bigger picture here, and that's playing meaningful baseball in September. We need to do the little things right to get there."
Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.