The Red Sox have a problem.
Well, OK, they have more than one, actually, but at least this is one they can share with the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays, who all may also have the same emerging issue with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Just in case you haven’t noticed, the dynamic Blue Jays have begun to emerge from the stagnant mediocrity that plagued the American League East for the first month-plus of the 2014 season. On Wednesday, as the Sox were celebrating their past with the 2004 champs in town, Toronto continued its current assault on the division and, in the process, may have showed some of the magic that Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling, David Ortiz, Manny, Pedro, and company exhibited once upon a time.
The Blue Jays beat the Rays, 3-2, for their ninth win in a row – and first walk-off victory of the season – thanks to pinch-runner Kevin Pillar (you can’t make this up), who dove across home plate for the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the win, the Jays maintained a three-game lead on the Yankees and an eight-game lead on the Sox, 4-0 winners over the Braves Wednesday at Fenway Park, where they are now only 11-17 this season.
Three of those losses, of course, came at the hands of the streaking Blue Jays, whose three-game sweep of Boston last week kicked off their current winning streak and helped contribute to the worst losing skid the Red Sox had suffered in 20 years. Suddenly, the 32-22 Blue Jays are mere percentage points behind the Oakland A’s for the best record in the American League, and a baseball Renaissance is seemingly finally, mercifully, taking place north of the border.
It’s been 21 years since Canada could claim both the Blue Jays and Montreal Canadiens as champions of their respective leagues in the same calendar year. Can it happen again?
Toronto is a long way from being considered for that claim, and the Habs still have their work cut out for them against the New York Rangers, hoping to force a Game 7 in the NHL Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night at the Bell Center. The dream lives, for one more day at least.
For the Blue Jays, relevance has been a long time coming, following repeated years of wondering if “this” might finally be the year Toronto breaks through in a division traditionally held hostage by New York and Boston. Last year was supposed to be “finally,” when the Jays loaded up in the same offseason they traded manager John Farrell to the Red Sox. They acquired Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Jose Reyes in a mega-deal with the Miami Marlins. They picked up reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey in a deal with the New York Mets. Toronto even took a juicy flier on Melky Cabrera, whose 2012 season ended abruptly in San Francisco after testing positive for PEDs in late July, only weeks after he had been named the All-Star Game’s MVP.
The Blue Jays were the darlings of the preseason, when plenty of prognosticators picked them to win the division.
They finished last, 23 games behind Boston.
“I always knew we had a good team,” Buehrle told the National Post. “I thought the same thing last year. I was wrong last year.”
Everything went wrong for the Jays in 2013. Buehrle made 33 starts, but was only 12-10 with a 4.15 ERA. Johnson went just 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA en route to Tommy John surgery. Dickey started a league-high 34 games, but the knuckleball proved unpredictable at Rogers Center, where he was 8-6 with a 4.80 ERA. Reyes, who spent only one year with the Marlins after signing a six-year, $105 million contract, suffered an ankle injury in his first month with Toronto and managed to play in only 93 games. Cabrera went from a .902 OPS with the Giants to a .682 mark with the Jays.
In 2014, Buehrle is off to a 9-1 start, Cabrera has eight of Toronto’s AL-leading 76 home runs, Reyes is healthy and has been an effective leadoff hitter for the free-scoring Jays, and Dickey is 4-1 in his last six starts. Only the Colorado Rockies (271) have scored more runs than the Blue Jays (268), whose bats are keeping its so-so pitching afloat. Toronto’s starting 3.75 ERA is fifth-best in the AL; its 4.87 bullpen ERA trails only Houston for worst in the league, but with a healthy Casey Janssen, who started the season on the disabled list, has pitched nine consecutive innings en route to eight saves, hopes to relieve some of that burden. Overall, the Blue Jays, 20-7 in May, tout a 3.65 team ERA.
But the Blue Jays are truly all about the bats. In last week’s series, Toronto outscored Boston, 20-10, with Edwin Encarnación hitting four of his 16 home runs this season against Felix Doubront, Edward Mujica, and Clay Buchholz, who allowed a pair in Boston’s 6-4 loss last Wednesday. Jose Bautista’s .434 on-base percentage leads the AL, and may be in the early MVP discussion with Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz, teammate Encarnación, and Detroit’s Victor Martinez. Cabrera already has 70 hits, including 13 doubles and eight home runs, second-most to Houston’s Jose Altuve, who has 73.
In a division that was thirsty for someone to break from the pack, the Jays have quickly made a move, and even though their sustainability can be questioned, they have one thing going for them: They may just simply have better pieces than everything New York, Boston, Tampa, and Baltimore has put together. Fangraphs currently projects Toronto to win 88 games, good enough to that the AL East crown. To make that mark, all the Blue Jays would need to do would be to go 56-52 the remainder of the season. To win the same number of games, the Red Sox would have to go 65-45 the rest of the way.
Despite their three-game winning streak (thanks, Atlanta), that’s an issue for a team that has yet to discover its groove, something the Jays seem to be in right now. Toronto is 4-2 against Boston this season, with the two teams not scheduled to meet again until late July. That will kick off a stretch in which 20 percent (13) of Boston’s final 64 games will be against the Blue Jays.
“Everybody’s having fun,” Encarnación told TSN. “You can see it on their faces. We’re playing great baseball.”
That’s a big problem.