The Toronto Blue Jays returned to the supposedly cozy confines of Rogers Centre Wednesday night to face the Philadelphia Phillies and begin a nine-game homestand, their confidence buoyed by a season-high three-game winning streak.
Three games! It says a lot about the fragile state of the Blue Jays’ psyche when a trio of consecutive wins is a cause for celebration.
And perhaps it is in the new world order of the American League East, normally considered major-league baseball’s high-rent district whose inhabitants have all displayed signs of decay heading into the second month of a long season.
The AL East standing remains a quagmire, with a mere 2 1/2 games separating the first– and last-placed teams at the start of play on Wednesday, with none of the combatants seemingly willing, or able, to muster any sort of a run to separate them from the pack.
And it has definitely been beneficial to the one-step forward, two-step back Blue Jays, who remain well positioned in a division still waiting for one of the teams to make a bold statement.
“It’s unusual,” Toronto manager John Gibbons conceded about a thus-far lacklustre AL East race that is puttering along at less than fever pitch. “It doesn’t really happen. It’s kind of that way in all of baseball, everything’s kind of bunched up in just about every division.”
Perhaps, just perhaps, the Blue Jays (17-17) are poised to make that AL East breakaway, winning for the fourth consecutive outing – and third in a row over the Phillies (15-17) – with an emphatic 10-0 triumph before 16,446 happy customers at Rogers.
It marked the first four-game win streak for Toronto since June of last year when the Blue Jays reeled off 11 in a row.
Wednesday’s game featured the pitching artistry of two crafty lefty starters in Mark Buehrle for the Blue Jays and the Phillies’ Cliff Lee, and things were tight – at least until the seventh inning, where Toronto carried a slender 1-0 lead.
That’s where it all fell apart for Lee (3-3) as the Blue Jays exploded for nine runs off eight hits, including three home runs that turned the proceeding into a rout.
Former Philly Erick Kratz began the hit parade with a two-run shot that was duplicated by Juan Francisco, both off Lee.
Edwin Encarnacion than piled on with a mammoth three-run poke to straightaway centre off reliever Shawn Camp.
That prodigious outburst was more than enough support for Buehrle, who earned his league-leading sixth victory (against one loss) with another stellar outing, blanking the Phillies over seven innings, allowing just three hits while striking out six.
“More luck,” the always modest Buehrle proclaimed afterward. “Throw where they can’t hit it and hope for the best.”
The veteran pitcher said that’s been his credo all season and a start to a year that has been the best he has ever experienced.
“The start of the season it’s got to be the best,” he said. “Like I’ve said, I don’t want to ask too many questions, I don’t want to try to figure out what’s going on. I’m just going to try and roll with it and keep it as long as I can.”
And with an ailing roster that is close to getting a couple of key members back, the timing just might be right for the Blue Jays to bust a move.
Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie missed his second straight game after his right hamstring tightened up on him, but he is close to getting back into the lineup.
Gibbons said that Lawrie could be ready to play again as early as Thursday in the finale of the two-game mini-set against the Phillies or Friday when the Blue Jays begin a four-game set against the Los Angeles Angels.
Francisco got the start at third against the Phillies on Wednesday. The timing of the setback for Lawrie is not great as he was finally starting to swing the bat with some consistency, hitting .383 over his last 12 games prior to the injury, raising his season average to .229 in the process.
Lawrie’s crummy season average doesn’t seem as bad when you consider that he has cranked six home runs and driven in 19 runs, third highest on the club.
Adam Lind, out since April 19 with a bad back and continuing his rehab in Florida, is also close to returning to the big league lineup, perhaps as early as Thursday according to the manager. And closer Casey Janssen is almost ready to make his season debut after recovering from a wonky back.
Jose Bautista, with a run-scoring single in the seventh inning, has now reached base safely in all 34 games this year for the Blue Jays.
He also chipped in with a couple of fine defensive plays in right field, including a great sliding catch off a sinking liner off the bat of Chase Utley in the sixth.