Jays contend they're in it for the long haul
Toronto's Vernon Wells gets the hero's welcome at the plate following his second inning grand slam off of Matt Clement. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
In the interest of the greater good, baseball needs the Blue Jays.
The eight consecutive years of 1-2 finishes in the American League East for the Yankees and Red Sox is a source of great comfort to their organizations and their fans, and it's probably a source of amusement for many others, but if you're one of the forgotten Others it has been frustrating and absolutely humiliating to live through. They have all looked, frankly, ridiculous.
So, it's time for a change.
Of course, I thought it was time for a change last year at this time, too, and we all know what happened. Nature took its inevitable course in the AL East. The Blue Jays lost Roy Halladay, the Orioles just lost, period, and by August there was no doubt in anyone's mind that it would be the Yankees and Red Sox yet another time.
But the Blue Jays didn't just settle for wishin' and hopin'. They were as proactive as any team in baseball during the offseason, throwing around those Canadian dollars by the millions and millions and millions. They spent for a catcher (Bengie Molina), a first baseman/designated hitter (Lyle Overbay), a third baseman/cleanup hitter (Troy Glaus), a righthanded starter (A.J. Burnett) and a closer (B.J. Ryan). Many analysts say they overspent for the talent involved, but general manager J.P. Ricciardi was trying to do more than just acquire better players.
He wanted to send a message to the baseball world. He wanted the Toronto fans, the Red Sox and Yankees, and even other potential free agents who'll be looking around in the next couple of years, to know that the Toronto Blue Jays were officially back in the winning business. He wanted the baseball world to know that his Blue Jays were now in Popeye mode: They had all they could stands; they couldn't stands no more.
''We think we've got a competitive club that can win every night," said manager John Gibbons after last night's 8-6 victory had given his squad the rubber game of this three-game series. ''Of course, we won't, but we do have a chance."
The Blue Jays aren't claiming anything other than this: We are better than we were. We have beefed up. We like our chances.
They'll like them even better when they are whole. They are currently operating without Halladay and Burnett. Without them in the rotation, there isn't anything to talk about in the long run. They just won't have enough starting pitching. But with them at the front of a rotation that also includes Gustavo Chacin, Josh Towers, and, following last night's laughably easy mastery of the Boston lineup, officially certified Red Sox killer Ted Lilly, they have a five-man crew that gives them a chance to win any series, against anyone, anywhere.
Vernon Wells has been a part of this Toronto mix since 1999, and a full-time player since 2002. He is as close to becoming Mr. Blue Jay as anyone they have, and it is his belief that this team has an honest chance to accomplish great things this season. He explained the fascination with which he watched Ricciardi add this guy and that guy and this guy and that guy during the offseason.
''It was like being a fan," said the 27-year-old center fielder, whose mammoth second-inning grand slam (it hit the back wall above the TV camera) was the biggest blow of the evening. ''I was sitting back watching the team get better and better, and it was fun to watch. I've been around quite a few years, and this is the first time we've really had a chance to win. It's very exciting."
''Maybe the odds are against the Yankees and Red Sox doing it again," said Gibbons, ''but remember, they are the Yankees and Red Sox. It's not like they were just sitting around doing nothing while we were adding players. Look at the Red Sox. They got [Josh] Beckett. Mike Lowell is a good player. Mark Loretta is one of the top second basemen in baseball. We made a leap, but it's not like they sat around and did nothing."
Given the absence of Halladay and Burnett, the Blue Jays are happy for every W they get right now. They took two of three in the opening series with Minnesota before losing two of three to Tampa Bay. So winning two of three in Boston sends them on to Chicago with a spring in their step. ''It's important we do this after losing the series to the Devil Rays," said Wells. ''Coming here and winning these two with these crowds, and in this atmosphere, was big. This allows us to reaffirm that we know how to win."
Wells remains one of the keys to it all, and he knows it. The man who was attracting some MVP mention in 2004 fell off last year (.269-28-97), taking a long time to get comfortable at the plate. He remains a five-tool player, but he is far from a finished product, and he responded to the disappointment of '05 by working very hard in the offseason. ''He's one of the best players in the league," said Gibbons. ''He's going to get 20-plus homers, drive in a hundred runs. Throw in a Gold Glove, and he's a future MVP."
Wells has welcomed all his new mates, lauding Glaus for bringing ''stability" and a ''knowledge of how to win." But he says it's clear which of the newcomers is the most important.
''It's B.J. Ryan," he declared. ''Seeing him run in from the bullpen is very comforting. It's fun to see him come in."
The 6-foot-6-inch lefthander does have as much pressure on him as all the other new guys combined, since he received the richest free agent contract -- five years, $47 million -- ever lavished on a reliever. He is a guy who has only closed for one year, and that in relatively pressure-free Baltimore. Last night was the first time he's ever taken the mound in Fenway for a team that many people feel is a legitimate contender.
''There are always those high expectations no matter where you are," he said, ''but everything's in place here. It's just a matter of doing the little things that will win ballgames."
One veteran thinks the only path to the playoffs will be to beat out both the Yankees and Red Sox. ''I don't think the wild card can come from the AL East," observed veteran catcher Gregg Zaun. ''I think teams will be beating up on each other too much. I could be wrong, but I think that in order for anyone to go to the postseason from this division they're going to have to win it. It will take a special effort from a special group of guys to get it done."
That's as close as any Blue Jay will come to bragging, so I'll say it for them. They've had enough of this humiliation and enough of this Yankee-Red Sox tyranny. ''We want to be playing games in September that mean something," said Gibbons.
OK, then. Sept. 22-25: Red Sox at Toronto. Keep those dates in the back of your mind.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.