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Jays Jump Out to Early AL East Lead

We would look rather foolish if we drew conclusions based on the season’s first week. Anything can happen in the span of six games, which is why they play baseball for 162 games spanning six months. The first few weeks, even the first couple of months, centers on stories. A story doesn’t have to carry long-term implications. It just has to be entertaining. The opening week of 2010, thankfully, left us with no shortage of baseball stories.

Heading into the season, the Blue Jays were considered among the worst teams in the league. During the Opening Day chat, a number of panelists agreed that they were the team most likely to lose 100 games. Which, I suppose, means that they project as the league’s worst team. New GM Alex Anthopoulos apparently has a plan to rebuild the squad, but that takes time. It also oftentimes involves hitting the cellar for a year or two and collecting the accompanying draft picks. Yet the Blue Jays have started the season hot, finishing the first week with a 5-1 record, tied with Philadelphia, Detroit, and San Francisco for tops in the majors.

Does this mean that the Blue Jays figure to shock us this year, becoming the scrappy underdogs in the powerhouse AL East? Hardly. In fact, we’ve seen this type of play from the Blue Jays recently — as in, just last year. Through their first six games of 2009 they also finished 5-1, ending the week ahead of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in the standings. Even Baltimore finished the week near the division’s attic, going 4-1, including two wins in the opening series against the Yankees. While the Orioles fell quickly, though, the Jays continued their hot play for quite some time.

After completing a four-game sweep of the White Sox on May 18, the Jays had played 41 games and held a 3.5 game lead in the AL East. To finish the first week at 5-1 is one thing, but to maintain a lead over the Yanks, Sox, and Rays through 41 games is quite another. Might this team have been for real? They made a compelling case to that point, but again, this is why the baseball season lasts 162 games. In fact, if the season lasted just 62 the Jays would have finished third place in the AL East.

May 18 represented a high point for the Jays. Immediately after they finished that sweep of the White Sox they collapsed. It started with a three-game sweep by Boston. Then Atlanta swept them. Then they traveled to play Baltimore, a team they had swept earlier in the month, hoping to rediscover their winning ways. It did not happen there, as the Orioles also swept them. That’s nine days, nine games, nine losses. The Jays hung around for another couple of weeks, but a four-game losing streak in June put them five games out, and even a sweep of the Phillies couldn’t bring them out of the hole. By the All-Star break they found themselves 11 games out. The only story left for them was the fate of Roy Halladay.

The Jays could have another story brewing this year. Their only loss of the season came on Opening Day, when Shaun Marcum, who missed all of 2008 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, took a no-hitter into the seventh. The bullpen blew that game, but the Jays recovered to take the next five contests. In two straight games they mounted ninth-inning come backs, thwarting since-deposed Texas closer Frank Francisco and then struggling Orioles closer Mike Gonzalez. They followed that up with two convincing wins, putting them atop the AL East as they head back to Toronto for their home opener later tonight.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a situation where the Jays continue their early season surge. Vernon Wells will not keep his wOBA anywhere near .576, even if he does produce a bounce-back season. Alex Gonzalez will certainly fall hard from his .538 first-week wOBA. Dana Eveland will not provide 7.1 innings of shutout ball every time out — and there’s a good chance he won’t do that even one more time this season. Jason Frasor and Kevin Gregg will certainly blow saves. This isn’t to rain on the Blue Jays parade, but is simply a matter of fact. They might get some surprise performances that last all season, but certainly will not get enough to overcome the competition in the AL East.

That’s fine for the Blue Jays. It’s part of the plan for long-term success. I don’t think any of their fans expected them to finish higher than fourth in the East, and the majority, I would think, pegged them as the cellar. That might well come true. After all, in 2005 the Orioles led the AL East through May but finished the season 74-88. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should ignore the story they’re producing right now. Vernon Wells is surging. The pitching staff has handled itself well. Some role players have contributed. While we’ll be telling a different story next month, for now it’s the Jays’ time to bask in the spotlight.