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The Blue Jays are no Rays

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TORONTO – J.P. Ricciardi is one of nine general managers who remain in the same job since he became GM of the Toronto Blue Jays before the 2002 season, which is another way of saying 21 other teams elected to make changes in the interim.

Brian Cashman, Yankees. Kenny Williams, White Sox. Mark Shapiro, Indians. Billy Beane, Athletics. Larry Beinfest, Marlins. Dan O'Dowd, Rockies. Kevin Towers, Padres. Brian Sabean, Giants.

And Ricciardi.

Six of those GMs have taken teams to the World Series. Two, Beane and Shapiro, have had teams play for the pennant.

And then there is Ricciardi. Only one of his Blue Jay teams have finished as high as second place, in 2006, and that one finished 10 games out of first.

"Seven years,'' Ricciardi acknowledged Friday afternoon, "as a coach, manager, or general manager, is a long time.''

Especially when you haven't reached the playoffs.

It's long been the price paid for being in the same division as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. But in a summer in which the Yankees almost undoubtedly will miss the postseason for the first time since 1993 (1994 was a strike year), it is not the Jays who have rushed in to fill the void, but the Tampa Bay Rays, who have gone from worst to first in the span of a single season.

How aggravating is it to watch the Rays make their October plans while the Jays, who have not been in the postseason since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992-93, will be going home?

"It's not aggravating,'' said Toronto ace Roy Halladay, who beat the Rays 6-4 Friday night to reduce Tampa Bay's lead over Boston in the AL East to 2½ games. "More than anything, you see the possibilities, what we could have done if we'd gotten hot early.''

The Blue Jays were 10 games out of first just after Father's Day. The closest they've gotten since is 7½ games. Friday's win, their season-best sixth in a row, put them eight games over .500, their high-water mark for the season, but still 11½ games behind the Rays, nine games behind the Red Sox, who lead the wild card.

"They've had a great year,'' Ricciardi said of the Jays. "They deserve to be where they're at. They've played great. Everything's gone right for them in a lot of ways.

"They've had a magical year.''

The Blue Jays showed some magic Friday night, but only because Joe Carter, who hit the World Series-clinching home run here in 1993, was in the house.

"We didn't hit,'' Ricciardi said. "We're No. 1 in pitching, No. 1 in the bullpen, No. 1 in defense. We've got a good club, but we just didn't hit the way we thought we could. I think it's real evident we haven't scored as many runs as we should have.''

The Jays began the night scoring 4.5 runs a game. That's the lowest average in the division, and placed them 11th in the AL. They ranked 10th in on-base percentage, 11th in slugging, and 12th in home runs.

Frank Thomas, who led Toronto with 26 home runs, 95 RBIs and a .377 on-base percentage in 2007, got old overnight and was released a couple of weeks into the season, the Jays unwilling to allow his $10 million option for 2009 to vest. Without Thomas, the Jays have used 13 players as DH.

Right fielder Alex Rios hit two home runs Friday night, and has nine since the All-Star break, but has hit just 13 overall, after hitting 24 last season and signing a six-year, $64 million contract extension last winter.

Center fielder Vernon Wells, bothered by a sore shoulder all last season, has missed 52 games this season with a fractured wrist and strained hamstring. Scott Rolen, who came to the Jays from St. Louis in a swap of third basemen (Troy Glaus), has continued to struggle with the shoulder problems that plagued him with the Cardinals. Second baseman Aaron Hill – "Our Pedroia,'' Ricciardi called him – has been out since the end of May after a serious concussion. David Eckstein, the free-agent shortstop expected to jump-start the team from the leadoff spot, didn't make it through the season. He was dealt to Arizona last week in a waiver deal.

"Not having Wells for three months, not having Hill for four months, those are big losses for us," Ricciardi said. "There wasn't a lot of production out of DH, first base and right field. It's not really about Frank (Thomas). Lyle (Overbay) is a real good hitter, but he's not having the year we expected. Rios is a real good hitter, but he's not having the year we expected from a home run standpoint.

"Our lineup should have been better.''

The lack of production cost manager John Gibbons his job 74 games into the season. And perhaps, in an effort to conjure a little magic of his own, Ricciardi hired Cito Gaston, who managed the World Series-winning teams in 1992 and 1993 but hadn't managed since being fired with a week left in the '97 season.

It took two years for Gaston to even get an interview for another job. That was with Milwaukee, and the Brewers passed. He thought he had a job with the White Sox, but Williams hired Ozzie Guillen. "They take care of their own,'' Gaston said. "Ozzie's done a good job.''

Gaston, who remained with the Jays as a special assistant to club president and CEO Paul Godfrey, said he vowed never to submit to another interview after that rebuff. But Ricciardi asked him on several occasions if he'd ever manage again, and Gaston always said he'd think about it.

Then Ricciardi called and offered him the job, and Gaston accepted. "My wife said, 'That was quick,' '' Gaston said. "I said, 'I've been telling the guy for three years I'd come back.' I tell everybody now that I was holding out until I could come back here.''

The Jays are 39-27 since Gaston took over on June 20, and they're swinging the bats better under the long-time hitting coach, who brought back Gene Tenace to serve him in that capacity. They're averaging 4.9 runs a game, almost a full run better than the 4.0 they were averaging before the change was made, and the OPS is up by 42 percentage points, from .713 to .755 under Gaston.

"He's awesome,'' Rios said of Gaston, who has worked on breaking Rios of the habit of shifting too much weight onto his back foot. "He wants you to be aggressive in the strike zone, and I like that approach. And he gives you confidence. If you make an out, it's OK.''

Ricciardi said he was influenced by the way the Tigers thrived when Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski brought Jim Leyland out of retirement.

"We just needed a change – a different voice, a different direction,'' Ricciardi said. "This club needed a veteran presence, and he's the veteran presence we were looking for. A lot of guys respond well to him. He gives us a little more swagger.''

Ricciardi announced already a month ago that Gaston would be back in 2009. "That's good enough for me,'' Gaston said. "He said we'll sit down this month and talk (about a contract).''

And what of Ricciardi's own future? He has two years left on his contract, but with Godfrey dropping hints that he may retire after the season, there has been speculation that ownership (Rogers Communication) might scratch at its seven-year itch and make a change.

Ricciardi has some say in his future. He has an out in his contract that allows him to walk if Godfrey goes. But he says he has not heard from ownership and is proceeding under the assumption that he will be back.

The team is likely to lose 16-game winner A.J. Burnett, who is expected to opt out of a contract that would pay him $12 million a year for the next two years because he can command more as a free agent. Because of injuries, Burnett won just 10 games in each of his first two seasons with Toronto after signing a five-year, $55 million deal; now that he's healthy and pitching the way Ricciardi envisioned he would, he's headed out the door.

"We'd love for him to stay,'' Ricciardi said, "but we're prepared either way.''\

The Jays still have Halladay, of course, and behind him young pitchers Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, Dustin McGowan, and David Purcey, with 2007 top draft pick Brett Cecil (already in Triple A) and Davis Romero in the pipeline.

The team will need at least another bat, but is giving 20-year-old outfielder Travis Snider, drafted No. 1 in 2006 and the first high schooler taken that high by the Blue Jays since 2000, a long look this month. Snider hit his first big-league home run earlier this week. The club is also high on minor-league catcher J.P. Arencibia, the former University of Tennessee star who hit 30 home runs in just his second pro season.

"We're pretty committed to what we're trying to do here,'' Ricciardi said. "I've got two years left (on his contract) and I plan on being here. We've got a good story to tell here. I'm excited where we're going. I expect we'll be knocking on the door.

"Ownership has been great to me. They believe in what we're trying to do. They understood that the first four years, when we didn't have money, we had to go backward first in order to go forward. One of the things I'm proudest of is that we never let the franchise go into total decline – we've managed to keep our heads above water.''

But after seven years, treading water is unlikely to satisfy anyone. Tampa Bay's ship has sailed. Toronto's is overdue.