Soaring Blue Jays fall back to earth

BOSTON – The Toronto Blue Jays have crashed and burned. The Tampa Bay Rays have lost their closer, maybe forever, and their second baseman for the season.

And just like that, the American League East is about to revert to a familiar story line after a spectacular deviation last season: It’s the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, then everybody else.

The Blue Jays were the flavor of the month until losing nine straight, their longest road losing streak in 30 years. They went into Boston with a chance to make a statement. Instead they were swept, sleepwalked through another sweep in an interleague swing through Atlanta, then were kicked to the curb in Baltimore.

And it doesn’t get any easier this weekend at home, where the Red Sox invade for another three games, unencumbered by any fear of having to face Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay(notes), who was betrayed by his bullpen in the trip’s final act Wednesday, a 12-10 extra-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

“I think everybody’s going to kill each other in this division,” general manager J.P. Ricciardi had said in Boston when the Jays still held first place in the division. “It’s going to be a brutal division. There’s no reason to believe it won’t be.”

The Jays won early because they got much better pitching than they had any right to expect from a bunch of youngsters summoned to patch a rotation decimated by injuries – Ricky Romero(notes) and Scott Richmond(notes) and Brett Cecil(notes) and Robert Ray(notes).

They also were hitting, a rediscovered art in Toronto for which manager Cito Gaston was receiving much of the credit.

“We had underachieved so much offensively the last two years we came in saying we couldn’t expect much more than that this season,” Ricciardi said. “We always thought we could hit, but we hadn’t the last two years. If we had, we would have won 95 games.”

Second baseman Aaron Hill(notes), after last summer’s scary concussion, was back, doing for the Jays what Dustin Pedroia(notes) does for the Red Sox, sticking himself in the middle of every rally, wearing out opposing pitchers with his energy. Vernon Wells(notes) was healthy. So was Scott Rolen(notes). Adam Lind(notes), a big disappointment in 2008, was producing. Marco Scutaro(notes), no one’s idea of an everyday shortstop, became a run machine. Catcher Rod Barajas(notes) was putting up career-best numbers.

“Here’s why we’re going to stay in it,” predicted Kevin Millar(notes), an offseason pickup off the remainders table. “A healthy Aaron Hill. A healthy Vernon Wells. Position player-wise, we can compete with anybody. And the biggest thing? Roy Halladay at the top of your rotation, period.”

But not even Halladay could stop the bleeding on this trip, one in which the Blue Jays were outscored 53-23. He had two no-decisions, pitching seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 loss in Atlanta and giving up three runs in seven innings of a 12-10 loss at Baltimore.

Mostly, the Blue Jays stopped hitting. The first eight games of the streak, they scored three runs or fewer. They batted .185 with runners in scoring position. They hit just two home runs. Lind fell into a 4-for-35 funk. Rolen batted .192. Wells knocked in two runs on the trip, and Alex Rios(notes), who had just one RBI, was benched for a game.

“Let’s get to the end of the month and see where we stand,” Ricciardi had said.

Well, we’re just about there, and the Jays, while still only two games out, have the look of a team that won’t be much more than a spoiler. Rookie outfielder Travis Snider(notes), on whom the Jays had placed high hopes coming out of camp, has been sent back to the minors. Wells continues to be paid like a franchise player but only has shown glimpses of being a player who can carry a franchise. Rios, who had looked like a player on the cusp of becoming a 30-30 man, instead has plateaued.

Oddly, the Blue Jays have hit the wall just as they were getting some of their pitchers back. Romero, who had allowed four runs in his first three outings, strained his right oblique, returned this week and was rocked for five runs in a 7-2 loss to the Orioles. Casey Janssen(notes), who missed all of last season with a torn labrum, made his first start after spending all of 2007 as a reliever and pitched well, but he took a 4-3 loss in Atlanta. Jesse Litsch(notes) (forearm strain) is expected back in the middle of June. Shaun Marcum(notes) (elbow surgery) could be back in August.

“Our kids did a good job of holding down the fort, giving us a chance to win, which is all you can ask,” Ricciardi said. “We’ve got good young arms, and most of them are homegrown.”

If the Jays are to compete with the Red Sox and the Yankees, they will have to continue to spawn their own talent, which is why Ricciardi is so enthusiastic that Paul Beeston has returned to be president of the club after Paul Godfrey retired.

“He’s been huge,” Ricciardi said. “It’s been a great benefit to us, to have a guy who knows the game, who understands the game, who understands the value of scouting and development.

“We’ve never gone over slot [in the amateur draft] since I’ve been here. You can throw that out the window now.”

But that’s all down the road, when the Blue Jays may be faced not only with keeping up with the Yankees and Red Sox but also with fighting off the challenge of the Orioles, who with the call-up Friday of catcher Matt Wieters(notes) are in full-blown youth mode.

It’s a formula that finally paid off last season for the Rays, but they’re learning quickly just how difficult it will be to repeat after losing closer Troy Percival(notes) and second baseman Akinori Iwamura(notes). The Rays lead the league in runs, but unless the pitching shows significant improvement – and a new closer can be found – they may be in for a long summer. Only the erratic performance of the Red Sox and Yankees staffs have kept those teams from opening some distance in the division, and that may be just a matter of time.

The Jays? “I still think they can make life miserable for the other teams in the division,” said one major league executive. “But contend? Not in the AL East.”

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gordon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 28, 2009