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Preview: Blue Jays, It’s Your Turn

Jose Reyes

Despite a shaky start, there are Reyes of hope for the Blue Jays.

It’s been four days since the Toronto Raptors were eliminated from the NBA Playoffs, and their improbably successful season came to an emotional hault.

The time is now for the Blue Jays to take the torch, and run with it.  This city is already aroused for a winner.  It united as one behind an underdog story, one that was supposed to fail. The citizens had their collective imaginations ignited.  The Blue Jays have a golden opportunity to step into the dinosaur-sized void in our hearts.

Since the Raptors last game on Sunday, the Jays have not lost. Their four-game winning streak is the longest of the season, and their longest since the amazing 11-game run they went on in mid-June last season.

As it was then, it’s pitching that’s helping to lead the charge right now.  After a rocky start to the season, the rotation is settling in. Drew Hutchison has thrown seven and eight innings in his last two starts. Mark Buehrle has been magnificent in every appearance this year, save for a stinker against Boston two weeks ago–a game I had the misfortune of attending. Since his disatrous outing in Minnesota that saw him fail to finish the fifth inning, R.A. Dickey has thrown at least six innings in three consecutive starts. In the last two, he’s pitched into the seventh, and has lowered his ERA by a full run and a half.

Dustin McGowan, over two starts since making the decision to wear his insulin pump on the mound, has allowed three earned runs in 13 innings. Even J.A. Happ made a positive debut start in the absence of the now-injured Brandon Morrow

When Toronto was in the early stages of that long winning streak last season, the pitchers were throwing so well that when you looked at any matchup, you had faith the team had a good chance to win. That’s how I’m starting to feel about this club. Hutch is looking like a stud. Buehrle has found the fountain of youth. McGowan is settling in to being a starter again. And Dickey is going to be just fine.

The bullpen, despite some disastrous performances over the last three weeks, is still as talented as any in the game. And there are two reasons to believe there are brighter days ahead.  Firstly, their rock and anchor, closer Casey Janssen, is due back any day now. He’s missed the first five weeks of the season with an abdominal strain, and will surely stabilize the back of the ‘pen. With him back in his rightful spot, a trickle-down effect will smooth out the wrinkles. Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Sergio Santos can handle the seventh and eighth innings when necessary. And with the starters pitching deeper into games, they won’t need to do that as often.

Stock_Stroman04The second reason for hope: Marcus Stroman. The 22-year old prospect has brought an injection of life to the team. Coincidence or not, the team has not lost since his recall from Buffalo. He had been used as a starter in the minor leagues, but will pitch out of the bullpen, and as manager John Gibbons told Sportsnet 590 The Fan this morning, he can do a number of things for them. He’s talented enough to throw a single shutdown inning, while also durable enough to stretch out to three or four if need be. And they haven’t closed the book on him starting. In fact, if/when there’s another injury to a starter, he’s probably the first guy to step in. Sometimes the youthful exuberance of a young player can unite, and ignite, a team. We’ve seen it in the past with the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in Washington. Heck, we saw it with Munenori Kawasaki in this town last year. This is not to say Stroman is a player of Trout and Harper’s calibre (at least not talent-wise), but his impact could be as significant.

On offense, barring something dreadful over the next two nights, will have their preferred lineup together for the first time on Saturday afternoon.  They were essentially healthy out of spring training, but Jose Reyes left that first game in the first inning, and then Adam Lind hurt his back, and now Brett Lawrie has hamstring troubles of his own.  The only difference will be at second base, where Chris Getz has replaced Ryan Goins, but that’s probably an upgrade anyway, based on the way Goins was playing.

In 2013, it wasn’t until July that the Blue Jays had their ideal starting nine. By that point, they were several games out of first place, and stumbled out of the gate after the All-Star break, and the season was lost with two months left to play. This year, they still have 130 games to go, and the deficit is only a game and a half. The opportunity to strike is now.

Melky Cabrera leads the league in hits. Jose Bautista leads all of the MLB in OPS, and has reached base safely in all 34 games this season. He’s hitting for power, and drawing walks, and hitting the ball to the opposite field. His thumping buddy Edwin Encarnacion has finally found his power stroke, hitting home runs in back-to-back games, and is now tied with Bautista and Lawrie for the team lead with 21 RBI.

Colby Rasmus, like Cabrera, is in a contract season, and when the calendar flipped to May, he finally remembered that. In the seven games this month, he’s hitting .357 with four home runs and 11 RBI. He’s still walked only twice and struck out nine times, but when you can get that kind of production from a guy hitting in your bottom three, you’re going to take it laughing to the bank every day.

Management pledged in March to field the best team, regardless of options and contracts, and when Janssen returns Sunday or Monday, and one of the long relievers is sent to the minor leagues, we may finally see them hold true to that. Today, the team is finally down to a seven-man bullpen and a four-man bench, which is normal in baseball to optimize success. The bench has guys who can hit in Erik Kratz and Juan Francisco. It has guys who can field and run, and play multiple positions in Steve Tolleson and Chris Getz (whichever is not starting that day). The roster finally looks like one that might be able to win more than it loses.

As the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim from California (or whatever they’re called these days)–essentially Toronto West last season, in terms of a team with great expectations that landed on its nose–roll into town this weekend, it’s time for the Blue Jays to grab the proverbial bull by the horns. There is an opportunity knocking, not only in their own division, where nobody has yet separated themselves from the back, but also in the city, where the general public is looking for something to capture their attention.

The Raptors are done. The Leafs have been for weeks, and the disgruntled fanbase got more reason to grumble today with the contract extension of the beleagured head coach. If there was ever a moment for the Blue Jays to put their stamp on the city as the team to cheer the loudest for, it’s now. After so many years of failure with all of their clubs, it’s easy to understand why the fans are hesitant to throw themselves into a serious relationship with any one team. They just did it with the Raptors. Now they can rebound with the Blue Jays. It starts tonight, where they look to win a fifth consecutive game, against old friend and villain A.J. Burnett and the Philadelphia Phillies. Here is your starting lineup.

Blue Jays 05/08 (17-17)
OBP HR RBI
SS 7 Jose Reyes .253 2 8
LF 53 Melky Cabrera .359 6 14
RF 19 Jose Bautista .458 9 21
1B 10 Edwin Encarnacion .333 4 21
3B 47 Juan Francisco .368 4 11
DH 26 Adam Lind .465 1 6
CF 28 Colby Rasmus .279 8 18
C 22 Josh Thole .432 0 3
2B 39 Chris Getz .353 0 0
ERA W L
P 43 R.A. Dickey 5.01 2 3

Enjoy the game, folks. Hopefully it’s the start of something special.

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