Despite last night's 11-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals, the Toronto Blue Jays continue to be a surprise this season and find themselves tied for first with the Boston Red Sox in the American League's East Division. Not only are they leading their division with a 15-8 win/loss record and a .652 winning percentage, the Jays lead Major League Baseball in wins headed into today's games. While the season is still young, wins in the month of April can go a long way to being in contention in August and September.
Last year, the Jays were 35-39 on June 19th and had lost 13 of 17 games to fall 10.5 games behind Boston when General Manager J.P. Ricciardi fired Manager John Gibbons and brought back Cito Gaston. While with the team, Gibbons compiled a 305-305 win/loss record but horrendous hitting with runners in scoring position would often ruin a strong outing by the pitching staff. After Gaston returned to the team, he concentrated on improving the offence and the team went 51-37 to finish the season, including a ten game winning streak.
With half a season and this year's spring training to improve the club's hitting, Gaston has worked wonders. The players now feel they have a game plan when approaching the plate for their at-bats and will often sit next to Gaston to discuss the situation before heading to the on-deck circle. While the season is only one month old, the Jays lead the Major's in runs (136), hits (242), batting average (.290) and total bases (391). Leading the way after missing most of last season with a concussion is Aaron Hill. In his first 101 at-bats he has 38 hits and a .376 batting average to lead the team in both categories. Adam Lind, Marco Scutero and rookie Travis Snider have all been impressive to start the season as well. Veteran infielder Kevin Millar has been a dependable bat when filling in for first baseman Lyle Overbay and has 11 hits in 38 at-bats (.344 batting average).
The improved hitting has been a blessing as the pitching staff has been hit by injuries. After having the best pitching in baseball last season, this year's starting squad currently consists of pitching ace Roy Halladay and several rookies. Halladay is having his usual stellar start to the season; second in the Major's with 4 wins and 1 loss. He has 32 strikeouts in five starts this season. Rookie pitcher Ricky Romero was a surprise in training camp and started three games for the Jays before going on the 15 day disabled list with a right oblique muscle strain. According to the Jays web site, he "played catch" April 29th with no problems and should be back by mid-May. In his three starts he is 2-0 with 13 strikeouts and a 1.71 earned run average.
Another rookie pitcher on the Jays is North Vancouver native Scott Richmond. Only two years ago he was pitching for the Edmonton Cracker-Cats of the Independent Northern League. When his contract in Edmonton expired, he signed a minor league contract with the Blue Jays in 2008. He was a late season call-up last year, posting a 1-3 record in 5 starts and had an ERA of 4.00. He did not have a stellar spring training but stayed with the Jays as the team's fifth starter. He has proven that Gaston's faith in him was warranted; he is 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 2009. In his last outing versus the Royals he pitched a career high seven innings while striking out 5 batters. A rookie at 29 years of age, Richmond hopes to be a Blue Jay for years to come and is not just a token Canadian on the Jays staff, he has earned his spot in the starting rotation.
As the Jays continue to celebrate "Flashback Friday's" this season - honouring past Blue Jays players, I was quick to dismiss the hiring of Cito Gaston last year as a marketing ploy. I'll be the first to admit a mistake, I believed the two-time World Series winner as Manager of the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 was brought in to keep interest in the struggling team alive. Playing the game of "remember when we were good" to distract fans from the on-field mistakes. However, Gaston has done a tremendous job since re-joining the team and brought a calming presence to the dug-out. The early success of the hitters prove he is doing exactly what he has brought in to do, win games.
Already leaders in their division, the good news keeps on coming for Toronto as starting pitchers Romero, Jesse Litsch and Casey Janssen will soon join the club after time on the disabled list. With five quality starters, one of the best bullpens in baseball for the past several years and timely hitting, the Blue Jays could be in position to reach the post season for the first time since their World Series Championships. The season is young, but this year's Jays are on the right track. Have a great sports day everyone.