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They just might be the new Jays

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / April 5, 2008

TORONTO - It would be shocking if this Toronto team reverted to the days of the Blow Jays, which were plentiful after back-to-back championships in 1992 and '93. But the 2008 edition looks like a formidable squad capable of causing the Red Sox fits.

If last night's 6-3 win was an indicator, the Blue Jays look like they want to kick the Sox off their American League East perch.

For one, Shaun Marcum is this team's fourth starter, and he shut down the Sox for 6 2/3 innings before J.D. Drew stroked a tying three-run homer. The Jays lost two of three at Yankee Stadium to start the season, but they pitched well. Roy Halladay and Dustin McGowan could have won, as A.J. Burnett did, but they had hiccups, while the offense took time to get on track.

If healthy, the Jays' starters are going to be tough to crack over a season. Once B.J. Ryan returns late this month, the Jays' bullpen is going to be impressive. Jeremy Accardo saved 30 games a year ago in Ryan's absence. He'll likely be a co-closer or a setup man when Ryan returns.

Frank Thomas knocked in Toronto's go-ahead runs with a gap double off Manny Delcarmen in the seventh inning last night. While you might be able to retire Thomas on the high, hard stuff late in his career, throwing him changeups over the plate is still not a good idea. The Jays have added some attitude with shortstop David Eckstein at the top of the order. Lyle Overbay can really hit from the left side. Vernon Wells is healthy again and wants to live up to his enormous contract. Yesterday, the Blue Jays committed to Alex Rios and Aaron Hill with six- and four-year contracts, respectively.

"I've been watching a lot of tape lately," said a buoyant Thomas after the game. "I haven't watched too much tape in my career, but I'm watching more and more and I know the changeup has become a good pitch for Delcarmen. He got me out a couple of times last year and he threw me a couple of fastballs in and I just thought to myself that he probably wouldn't throw me a third. So, I just stayed back a little and got the pitch and drove it."

OK, it's only one win against the Red Sox, you say? Yes, but the feeling is the Jays took their lumps last season with injuries, allowing McGowan and Marcum to get valuable innings. Ryan had Tommy John surgery, and Accardo came into his own. The Jays are without Scott Rolen, who will miss the first month with a broken finger, but he is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game and can be one of the best big-situation hitters.

If the Jays can hang in while Ryan and Rolen return to health, they won't be a fun team to play in August or September.

"For me, personally, I just have to get started a little earlier this year," said Thomas. "I needed that game for myself to get the season going for me. It felt like a playoff game out there. We had over 50,000 people screaming for us. That was great to see."

Thomas is right about that. In the Blow Jay days, the stands would have been filled with Red Sox and Yankees fans.

"I don't think this crowd realizes what their support does for us," said Hill. "In the past you could hear the Red Sox fans or the Yankees fans. Tonight, you couldn't hear them. It would be great to hear that every single night and to have that support every single night. I know we have to prove ourselves to our fans, but if we could get that, what an incredible feeling that would be."

Accardo, who earned his second save of the season by retiring Mike Lowell with a first-pitch slider, said he was touched by the fact the crowd was "pro-Toronto. We could hear the fans. It felt like a playoff atmosphere out there."

Toronto manager John Gibbons wants to see those games that can go either way go to the Jays more often this season. He figures that with a good starting rotation and a bullpen that can hold leads, it will happen.

"The four games we've played so far, look at the way we've pitched," said Gibbons. "We've been solid. If we can score some runs like we did tonight, we're going to win some games. Marcum has pitched as well as our top three guys. He's got one of the best changeups in the league."

Thomas, who was ejected in the fourth inning of Thursday's game in New York for arguing balls and strikes, needed to feel good about himself to start the season. He's tired of waiting two months to kick it in gear.

"We've got a chance here to do something special," he said. "If we can get our guys all healthy in a few weeks, it's going to be a lot of fun around here. We have a good team. We have a lot of talent on the field. We have to keep pitching and getting timely hits. We can't give up on games. I was really proud that we kept going even after Drew hit the homer against Shaun to tie it. We felt, hey, we're home, let's go out and win."

It was a feel-good day. The Jays wore their retro powder blue uniforms. Roberto Alomar and former team president Paul Beeston were honored in a pregame ceremony. Blue Jays players walked into Rogers Centre to find a new clubhouse with all the bells and whistles. Two of their younger players were given long-term contracts. There were more than 50,000 on hand.

The encore?

"Just keep coming back here every day," said Thomas. "Do your best. Win games. Find ways to win games."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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