x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Toronto Blue Jays streaking despite a shaky pitching rotation

Toronto lead the American League East by five-and-a-half games over the second-place Baltimore Orioles and their recent run of success includes series sweeps of the Detroit and Oakland, writes Paul Freelend.

Juan Francisco, centre, has already belted 10 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays this season. Duane Burleson / AFP
Juan Francisco, centre, has already belted 10 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays this season. Duane Burleson / AFP

At what point in a 162-game season does it cease to be “early”?

For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, this is more than baseball’s equivalent of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. With 63 games played as of Sunday morning, it could be time to stop claiming it is too early in the season and start taking the Blue Jays seriously.

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Toronto lead the American League East by five-and-a-half games over the second-place Baltimore Orioles. They have been atop the division for 17 days, their longest stay in first place since 1993, the second of back-to-back World Series-winning seasons. Their recent run of success includes series sweeps of the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Atheltics, the other AL division leaders.

So why is it so difficult to put much faith in Toronto as genuine contenders? Part of that reticence is down to the mediocrity of the AL East. The Blue Jays are the only side in the division with a positive run differential – Baltimorea are even for the season, while the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays have all given up more runs than they have scored.

The Yankees are riddled with injuries, with new signing Masahiro Tanaka the only reliable cog in their pitching rotation. Boston have been deeply disappointing, and Tampa Bay are among Major League Baseball’s most offensively challenged teams.

How long will those usually successful teams remain mediocre, giving Toronto a chance to run away and hide?

Pitching is also a concern for the Blue Jays. While they lead the AL in nearly every offensive category, the run-prevention portion of their team is decidedly middling. Their bullpen is last in the league in allowing earned runs. A quality starting staff could paper over those cracks, but they lack one of those, too.

Staff ace Mark Buerhle, 35, personifies the late-career anomaly. He is 10-2 this season with a 2.04 earned-run average, second only to Tanaka (2.02), and had won six straight decisions before Saturday’s loss to St Louis. Big-money signing RA Dickey appears to be a spent force, though the fortunes of knuckleballers can be notoriously fickle. Drew Hutchinson has been average at best, and JA Happ aspires to even reach that level.

That leaves rookie Marcus Stroman, whose lively arm belies his 5ft, 9in stature. It would be foolish to ask a first-year pitcher to shore up a rotation that has three No 3 starters and one No 5, but at this point, Toronto might not have a choice.

The Blue Jays were 20-20 before winning 18 of their next 23 games. Regressing to the mean is bound to happen eventually, so the question is how far ahead they will be when that happens.

Unless another AL East team similarly catches fire, Toronto could enjoy smooth sailing into their first post-season since the heady days of the early 1990s.

pfreelend@thenational.ae

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