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Jays haven't flown the coop

Every morality play -- and what is a Red Sox game at Fenway if not just that? -- needs a hero and a villain. Say hello to the current designated villains, known to their fans as the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays came here last night entrenched in third place in the AL East. That is where they will finish. They were 15 games behind the Red Sox and Yankees and six games ahead of the fourth-place Orioles. On paper, there was nothing to play for. But they were not going to pull a Baltimore and affix a 37-cent stamp to their scheduled games against the Red Sox, who, of course, have everything to play for. At least, that's what they're saying.

''We came in here to win some games," declared Toronto manager John Gibbons. ''We've played them tough all year."

Ain't that the truth. The Blue Jays had abused the Sawx to the tune of a 9-5 advantage this season, winning three out of five here and six of nine at the Rogers Centre (nee SkyDome). And why is that, exactly?

''I don't know," Gibbons said. ''It's like Tampa Bay and the Yankees this year. Some teams play better against certain teams than against others. It may come down to confidence in any particular year."

It's been an interesting stretch for the Jays, who were at home against Seattle prior to hitting the road to play the Yankees and Red Sox, and who will leave here for a season-concluding weekend series against the Kansas City Royals, losers of 102 games and counting. Plenty of good seats available, I reckon.

But there sure weren't any such things in play during the Blue Jays' visit to New York, where the Yankees packed in 55,000-plus every game and where the Yanks surpassed the 4 million mark in attendance Sunday against the franchise that wrote the book on 4 million attendance. But that was more than a decade ago, when the Blue Jays were baseball's gold standard and the line of demarcation between big market and small market was not so clearly delineated. Times have changed dramatically up there. The Blue Jays will fall short of 2 million this season.

The Blue Jays were a factor for the first third of the season or so, surprising everyone by staying reasonably close to the top of the AL East. The Orioles were the biggest surprise, of course, but the Jays were surprise 1A. Then pitching ace Roy Halladay was hit in the leg by a line drive and baseball reality set in. The Jays settled into a basic .500 status, while allowing their fans to think that this was indeed a transition year.

''I think we took a big step forward," said old friend Shea Hillenbrand, who has become Toronto's regular first baseman. ''I don't think you want to talk about success when you're under .500 [the Padres excepted, of course]. But if we add a couple of pieces to the puzzle, I think we can open up a lot of eyes next year."

''Personally, I'd say it's been a successful season," said Gibbons. ''Coming in, no one expected us to do what we've done. We've got a lot of good young guys, and we should be better next year. But we need to add some things if we're going to contend."

Back in the here and now, the Jays are looking forward to playing in these pennant-race games. They do give a team locked into third place a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

''It's definitely a lot more exciting than it was when we were at home playing before 10,000 people against Seattle," said Hillenbrand. ''We were playing for pride, but, other than that, it was a downer. Playing in New York was fun. We were on ESPN twice, and I don't think we were on ESPN more than one other time all year."

Hillenbrand says he could see a change in the Yankees from the last time they played them. ''They were more focused," he reported. ''There was less conversation when they got to first base. You could tell they were already in a playoff mode. There was a very different attitude."

Like so many who have left Boston, Hillenbrand says that life can change drastically away from Fenway. As exhilarating as the weekend experience was, it was not the same as coming to Yankee Stadium with that ''Boston" on the front of the jersey.

''There's no question it's different," he said. ''Coming to Yankee Stadium now is no big deal, compared to when you come in with the Red Sox. You have all those people riding you. I miss that."

And how many times have you heard this? Gibbons loves coming to Fenway. ''There's such a passion for the game here," he said, ''and the people are so knowledgeable. Our clubhouse guy is here with us, and he was out playing golf this morning. A guy found out he was with the Blue Jays and he said, 'Thanks for what you did with [Mariano] Rivera yesterday.' He said, 'But he beat us.' And the guy said, 'Yeah, but you made him throw 35 pitches.' You don't hear that anywhere else."

There is an assumption by many that a team in the Toronto circumstance, with nothing tangible at stake, will play loosey-goosey, and thus will be a more dangerous foe. ''It is easier when you don't have to win," Gibbons acknowledged. ''That's human nature. The thing is, baseball is such a skill game. It's not like you can run around and hit somebody harder. Being a skill game makes it a different story.

''But that's a bad player talking to you. Maybe you should talk to a good one. But there's no question it's easier when you don't have to win."

The Blue Jays could have done what the Orioles did when it became apparent they were no longer actually in the race. They could have put on their baseball PJs. They did not.

''What we learned about these guys," said Gibbons, ''was that they were going to continue playing nine innings. These guys have a lot of heart. They've kept playing the last three weeks. They will hang around."

9-5 is 9-5. There are many other teams you'd rather see here this week than the Toronto Blue Jays.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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