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The Globe and Mail

Lowly Houston just the tonic to fix Toronto’s early woes

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Mark Buehrle works against the Houston Astros during first inning AL baseball action in Toronto on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.


Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind are neighbours who reside in a high-rent district within the Toronto Blue Jays luxurious clubhouse – the two infielders have extra space because they are separated by a vacant locker.

Like many savvy downtown Toronto inhabitants with precious real estate to spare, the pair decided to partake in a renovation and affixed a mini basketball hoop at the top of the empty space. And a couple of hours prior to Tuesday's series-opening encounter against the Houston Astros at Rogers Centre, the two players engaged in a spirited game of H-O-R-S-E, both showing that they chose wisely when deciding on their paying profession.

There was Lind, the first baseman and designated hitter, cradling an undersized basketball in his two large hands, with his back toward the basket, trying to make a circus shot.

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Then Lawrie, the uber-energized third baseman, grabbed the ball and perched himself atop of a nearby stationary bicycle before launching his attempt.

Another miss.

Safe to say the atmosphere was decidedly light among the players even though the Blue Jays had lost four of their first seven games. It is early, as the Major League Baseball season is only swinging into its second week, but the solid Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees provided stiff opposition for the Blue Jays starting off the season.

The antidote comes from the lowly Astros, losers of 100-plus games in each of the past three seasons. But there's still pressure to win, because the Jays know that in the high-powered American League East, a slow start can prove disastrous.

There is hay to be made against Houston in the three-game set before Toronto departs on a nine-game road trip, and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons knows it.

"I've always said, you can't bury yourself early, especially in this division," Gibbons said. "It's an uphill battle and it's real tough to come back. But we're trying to get off to a good start. With a few more games at home, it would be nice to finish on a good note."

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The Blue Jays took a good first step toward that immediate goal, once again combining a solid defensive effort with just enough offence to beat the Astros 5-2 before a miniscule Rogers Centre gathering of 13,123.

Melky Cabrera continued his torrid hitting, blasting a two-run home run in the seventh inning, when the Blue Jays were leading 3-2, to give Toronto some breathing room. It was Cabrera's fourth home run of the year and fourth in as many games as the Blue Jays made the most of very little at the plate, getting outhit 9-5 in the game.

Jose Bautista contributed his fourth home run of the year, in the first inning, while Dioner Navarro carded run-scoring doubles in both the fourth and sixth.

Toronto Starter Mark Buehrle was nowhere near as precise as he was in his opening start against the Rays, when he struck out 11 over 8 2/3innings. But he hung tough to snag his second straight win, limiting Houston to one run off eight hits before departing with one out in the sixth and a 2-1 lead.

The lefty said he was lucky to escape with as little damage as he did and didn't blame Gibbons for coming to get him so early. "I think it's frustrating to me because I like to go at least six innings," he said. "If I don't go six innings, I don't feel like I did my job.

"So this is one of those games that, you know, we won the game, I got the win, but it's one where I almost feel like I don't deserve it."

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These have been tough times for the Astros, who finished at 51-111 a year ago. They lost their last 15 games of the regular season to finish with the worst record in baseball. "They were the only team in baseball to carry a 15-game losing streak into opening day," came the wry observation of Alan Ashby, the former Blue Jays broadcaster who now plies his trade calling games for the Astros.

Toronto, while not yet in panic mode, is keeping close tabs on the state of its precarious starting rotation.

Starting pitcher Dustin McGowan got tagged hard in his first outing on Friday, when he surrendered four runs and eight hits in just 2 2/3-innings in a loss against the Yankees. The right-hander was supposed to make his next start on Thursday in the series finale against the Astros. But Gibbons has decided to bump McGowan back a day and have him start the first game of the road trip Friday in Baltimore against the Orioles.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey will now get the Thursday assignment inside Rogers Centre. Gibbons said the move was merely designed to separate Wednesday's starter, Brandon Morrow, and McGowan, two power pitchers, in the rotation alignment.

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