Blue Jays show signs of moving past AL East mediocrity

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Maybe you haven't heard much about the Toronto Blue Jays for a while.

For going on two decades, they've rested somewhere between great and atrocious, winning just enough to avoid derision, losing just enough to avoid the postseason. So, better than some, worse than others, not terribly threatening but not a comfortable out, either.

As a reference point, the Blue Jays have served as another reason the AL East has long been regarded as the most rigorous of the six divisions. Not that they'd win it or necessarily come close. But, they'd help provide depth, and they'd help cover for the monstrosities the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were and the Baltimore Orioles had become, until the Rays passed them, too.

Instead, they were the place where Roy Halladay and Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green came from, or where Roger Clemens and A.J. Burnett and Raul Mondesi went.



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Then, of course, they became the place that flowered Jose Bautista.

And still they bob capably along, better than average, but forever in the shadow of whatever else might be going on. Maybe that's because they've done little to warrant attention since the World Series years, or because they're in another country, or something.

Well, here they are again. They're 16-11 and have won four games in a row, have one guy among the league leaders in home runs and RBIs (Edwin Encarnacion) and another in wins (Ricky Romero), and now the story is the born-again Orioles, or when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will come to life, or if the Rays really are this good again.

Darren Oliver, the relief pitcher you may have heard of but had no idea was in Toronto, previously played in Texas, St. Louis, Boston, Colorado, Florida, Houston, New York and Los Angeles. Now he's got a cool place near the ballpark in Toronto, has discovered he really likes the city and even has found a few favorite restaurants.

Asked if he ever senses the rest of the baseball world overlooks Toronto and the Blue Jays, he grinned and nodded.

"Always," he said. "Totally agree. It's like, 'Canada? They got a team in Canada?'

"They're not in the postseason a while, not in the states. You tend to forget about them."

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They do have a team in Canada, which would explain the other song before games that involve the Blue Jays. More, they've played with some competence for a month, and so have come out with one of the better starts in franchise history.

True to their recent history, that leaves the Blue Jays squarely in the middle of the division, contending in what could be viewed as a somewhat non-threatening way.

The fact is, however, they've gotten this far without much from Bautista, and with a pitching staff that is quite young and whose preferred closer is on the disabled list. They've just shut out the Los Angeles Angels on consecutive nights, Brandon Morrow on Thursday and Henderson Alvarez on Friday, both complete games and with a combined 199 pitches.

So, the rotation – headed by Romero – has hung in there so far and been spectacular at times, which is very good news. And the offense has produced enough to be third in the league in runs, which also is good news, particularly since Bautista is batting .172 in the three hole and Adam Lind .231 at cleanup (.193 overall). Under the radar is a batting order that entered Friday night tied with the Red Sox in hitting with runners in scoring position, along with a huge month for Encarnacion, who, if ready to become a consistent producer, could make the Blue Jays a beast.

A hitter who'd hit home runs in clusters, Encarnacion went home to the Dominican Republic after last season and reworked his swing into something that might play better over a six-month season. He didn't hit a home run last season until May 29, in his 141st at-bat, and finished with 17. Through 105 at-bats this season, he has nine home runs – more than anyone in the AL other than Josh Hamilton and Curtis Granderson – and 24 RBIs.

"I wanted to change," said Encarnacion, typically a better second-half player. "I want to have a consistent season, all year long."

Now, rather than finishing his swing with one hand holding the bat, he holds on with both, a strategy designed to allow him to stay inside the pitch and drive the ball the other way. Luis Mercedes, the former big leaguer, tutored him through the new mechanics during frequent sessions in San Pedro de Macoris, at a facility run by Robinson Cano's father.

He's 29, the same age Bautista morphed from journeyman to superstar. The thought has crossed his mind.

"Why not?" Encarnacion said. "This game, you never know. But I know I can have great years. I know I can be consistent all year long."

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For the Blue Jays, it'll take more than that. They're asking a lot from a lot of young pitchers. They're asking Brett Lawrie to come along fast, and Colby Rasmus to play to his athletic potential, and Bautista to carry them in spots, all of which is possible. They're asking Encarnacion to stay inside the ball, end to end.

There is a baseball presence here, a way that the Blue Jays have pushed through the early weeks, that looks pretty decent. It doesn't do a thing for them in early May, other than to bury the alternative, and to start the journey out of the middle, where they've been too long. Few doubt the organization is coming, and that it still has ground to cover.

But, 16-11 is 16-11, and that's better than average, at least for the moment. They'll see where it goes from there.

"We probably can't answer that until the end of the year," manager John Farrell said. "We've got to go out and win."

Then, who knows? You might actually be hearing about the Blue Jays again.

"I don't think Toronto ever stopped being a baseball town," Bautista said. "When you're not winning, your fan base goes dormant. Maybe the only exception is the Chicago Cubs, but that's a different animal right there. Otherwise, nobody wants to go to a stadium and watch a team lose."

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