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Birds of a feather?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 19, 2009 10:52 AM

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And then there were … four?

"We’re playing well. We’re cautiously optimistic," said J.P. Ricciardi, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays team that arrives at Fenway Park tonight for the opener of a three-game series. "We’re still pitching well, like we have the last three years, but we’re pitching well with younger kids that people don’t know and we didn’t know. And I’ll be honest: We still don’t know."

The Jays are 27-14 and own the best record in the American League at what amounts to the quarter-mile post in the run for the roses in the 2009 season. Toronto is excelling in every area -- pitching, offense, defense -- leading to an obvious question:

With all of the attention on the Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, is it possible that the American League East houses a fourth championship hopeful, one that has blossomed in the absence of expectation?

"That’s fine. I don’t know if it can help, but for us, we don’t need someone not thinking well of us," said Ricciardi. "At the end of the day, we have to play and we understand that.’’

With that in mind, here is how the Jays stack up in an AL East that was thought to be a three-horse race:

STARTING PITCHING

Jays 19-10, 4.00 (third)
Rays 17-16, 5.18 (eighth)
Yankees 12-11, 5.25 (ninth)
Red Sox 15-12, 5.76 (13th)

As blessed as the Jays are to have Roy Halladay (8-1, 2.78), the three starters scheduled against the Sox -- Brian Tallet, Brett Cecil and Robert Ray -- are a combined 5-2 with a 3.72 ERA so far. The rotation was expected to be one of Toronto’s weaknesses given the departure of A.J. Burnett along with injuries to both Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan. But the Jays have been able to fill in behind Halladay with a cast of young and talented pitchers.

Will they hold up? That is hard to say. But Ricciardi believes the Jays have the organizational depth to make choices -- sound familiar? -- and the Jays might already have activated Jesse Litsch and Ricky Romero from the disabled list were it not for the fact that the Toronto staff has been pitching well without them.

"I’m not going to disrupt the team if guys continue to pitch well," said Ricciardi. "At the same time, it’s only May. ...It’s just hard right now because no one has failed. Until we have some failure, we’re going to stay where we are."

Though the Sox will not face Halladay in this series, do not underestimate the potential impact of a true ace, in this case one who happens to be the best pitcher in the division. In 1999, for instance, the Red Sox went 26-5 in Pedro Martinez’s 31 appearances (including two in relief) and just 68-61 the rest of the time. The Sox won 94 games and reached the American League Championship Series before losing to the Yankees.

RELIEF PITCHING

Red Sox 7-4, 3.02 ERA (second)
Jays 8-4, 3.55 (fourth)
Rays 3-4, 4.04 (seventh)
Yankees 9-6, 5.46 (12th)

As dominating as Red Sox relievers have been for the large chunk of the season, the Jays have been nearly as good -- and that's despite the difficulties of closer B.J. Ryan (9.45 ERA), who just came off the disabled list. Filling in for Ryan, lefthander Scott Downs (22 strikeouts, two walks) has been a perfect 5 for 5 in save opportunities and righthander Jason Frasor (4-0, 0.64 ERA) has been manager Cito Gaston’s answer to Ramon Ramirez.

Here, too, Ricciardi is optimistic that the Jays can continue excelling if for no other reason than the team has depth. Ricciardi believes that Casey Janssen is close to returning from the disabled list as a starter or reliever, though the latter would be more ideal for the overall productivity of the staff. Regardless, Toronto may have enough internal options that the Jays should be proficient in the late innings of games.

"We’ve got some flexibility," Ricciardi said. "We’ve got some questions to answer, but we’ve got ways to mix and match."

OFFENSE

Jays 234 runs (first)
Rays 221 runs (second)
Red Sox 208 runs (fourth)
Yankees 205 runs (fifth)

Before John Gibbons was fired as the manager last season, the Jays were one of the worst offensive clubs in baseball. Since that time, Toronto has been one of the best. This year, the Jays have scored more runs than any team in the American League -- granted the Jays also have played more games -- but Toronto (51 home runs, third) is hitting for much more power and batting a sterling .305 (second) with runners in scoring position.

As much as Toronto has struggled offensively in recent years, one of the team’s biggest problems has been health. So far this season, the Jays have been getting tremendous production from designated hitter Adam Lind and second baseman Aaron Hill, the latter of whom posted some totals in 2007 (17 home runs, 78 RBI) that were comparable to those of Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia in 2008 (17 home runs, 83 RBI).

This season, Hill already has 11 homers. He and Lind have combined for 69 RBI, more than any two players on the Red Sox. Meanwhile, Vernon Wells, Scott Rolen and Lyle Overbay have remained in the lineup.

"He’s a good player,’’ Ricciardi said of Hill, who missed much of last season with post-concussion syndrome. "It’s just nice to have him in lineup.’’

With everyone else in the lineup, too, Toronto has built a group, 1 through 9, that may nearly as deep as anything the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays can submit on a daily basis.

DEFENSE

Jays .987 (second)
Yankees .986 (fifth)
Rays .984 (seventh)
Red Sox .981 (12th)

We all know how the Red Sox feel about fielding percentage as a measure of defense, but no matter how you slice it, Boston’s defense has been a disappointment this year, at least at shortstop. Meanwhile, the Jays have been making all the plays, committing fewer errors (14) than any other AL East team but the Yankees (20). The Jays are especially strong at the corners and in center field, where third baseman Rolen, first baseman Overbay and center fielder Wells are especially valued.

All of this brings Ricciardi back to the starting rotation, which is where he admits that the Jays face their biggest questions. This week, at Fenway, Cecil and Ray each will make his fourth career start in the major leagues. Entering the year, at least on paper, Toronto didn’t come close to matching up with the vaunted rotations of the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees, but the Jays’ early-season excellence in this area has brought to light the team’s other strengths, from the bullpen and lineup to the defense.

In that way, will this week be a good test for them?

"I don’t think we’re going to let three games decide how we do," said Ricciardi, whose team thus far has played just three games against the division’s Big Three, losing two of three to New York. "We’ve played the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays so much our guys are used to going into Fenway Park, Yankees Stadium and Tampa."

But are they used to going in as front-runners?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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