TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays, to a man, will tell you that they always believed. That they knew, hidden among the ruins of last year’s 74-88 last-place finish, they were a first-place team.
Atop the standings in the American League East as May winds down, with a comfortable game-and-a-half cushion and the division’s best run differential, a quiet and confident sense of satisfaction has settled around the club as it prepares to officially end Toronto’s two-decades long playoff drought.
“This game, it’s fickle. It’s – and this is one of my favorite words – capricious,” said knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. “We learned a lot last year, when we crashed and burned. We learned a lot about expectations, and putting the cart before the horse, and Las Vegas. This year’s different. And I thought it would be.”
Much like last year, the 2014 Blue Jays can hit. Their 238 runs rank fourth in baseball, and third in the American League. Their 68 home runs lead the majors, and their .443 slugging percentage is tops in the AL.
What’s propelled this year’s club to new heights is their pitching – their starting rotation, and its 3.80 ERA. While that mark ranks only 15th in baseball, and sixth in the AL, it’s a drastic improvement over 2013, a full run lower than last year’s starting rotation’s 4.81 ERA.
“I’m the first guy to not make excuses,” said Mark Buehrle, “but last year was tough. It was an adjustment. A lot of new faces. A new country. I really missed my dog. There was the World Baseball Classic, injuries, and, God love him, but we trotted out one of the worst everyday catchers in the modern era.
“For whatever reason, it didn’t work,” Buehrle added. “But most importantly, we’ve put it behind us, and responded in the face of adversity, like all winning ball clubs do. We’ve proven the type of team we are.”
The standings don’t lie. And vindicated is manager John Gibbons.
“I’m proud of this group, man” Gibbons said, with a smile, in his Texas drawl. “They competed. They came in here this season ready to play, ready to win. We knew it was only a matter of time before [Brandon] Morrow and [Dustin] McGowan went down, and guys responded, took the ball, and pitched well.
“Buehrle’s been superb, unhittable this year. Dickey’s stopped giving up all the home runs. And I’m confident R.A’ll pitch into the seventh inning, maybe even the eighth, in October.”
The Blue Jays proved last year that a division – and a season – could be lost in April. This year, a playoff spot all but guaranteed in a weak AL East after a 15-7 May, they proved the opposite.
“I had a good feeling coming out of spring training,” said Jose Bautista, the face of the club, and the owner of a ludicrous 173 wRC+. “When Jose Reyes hit a triple, I knew.”
All that’s left is four months before the postseason.
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Navin Vaswani is a replacement-level writer. Follow him on Twitter.