By Jon Lane
We’re just approaching mid-May and have reached the season’s first “big” series. For once it’s not Yankees vs. Red Sox, for the Bronx Bombers are in Toronto to face the first-place Blue Jays.
That’s not a typo, folks. The Blue Jays, an afterthought for years in the AL East, are 22-12, boast four players (minimum 112 at-bats) batting at least .283 and have persevered despite a starting rotation held together by Roy Halladay, bubble gum and duct tape.
Already it’s a big series and a proving ground for both teams. The Yankees need to work out of their annual early-season doldrums and make a statement, writes Steven Goldman. They will greet the sub-.500 Twins and Orioles on their next homestand before welcoming the World Champion Phillies Memorial Day weekend. If they can hold it together, notes Goldman, Jorge Posada (and perhaps Brian Bruney) will be back and the team will (theoretically) be fully staffed for the first time all year and can really make some progress.
Don’t forget about Chien-Ming Wang either. Wang is starting in Scranton tonight and a strong effort might punch his ticket back to the Yankees along with the hope that his 34.50 ERA over three starts was a wicked aberration.
Think the Toronto media is pumping up this week’s three-game set? The Toronto Star is hyping tonight’s matchup as potentially the game of the year, and not just because it’s Doc Halladay facing A.J. Burnett. The scribes have noted the critics who have cited the Blue Jays playing 20 of 34 games against the AL Central and have not yet faced their rugged division rivals. Then there’s the return of Alex Rodriguez, and the sense of urgency growing in Yankeeland, that’s expected to draw a walk-up crowd that will boost attendance to at least 30,000. Figure on a few of them holding foam syringes and wearing blond wigs. Necessary? No, but it’s the nature of the beast.
Blue Jays fans have had nothing to cheer about since consecutive World Series championships in 1992 and ’93, so you can’t blame them for getting excited about their team holding the AL’s best record. The Jays have rarely made a big bang during the offseason, but the core of the team is beginning to pay dividends. Cito Gaston’s group lead the Majors in batting (.294) and runs scored (204), and are in the top five in on-base and slugging percentage. Then of course there’s Halladay, whose six wins are tied with Zack Grienke for the league lead and his 52.0 innings pitched rank third.
It was September 24, 2008 when Burnett walked off the Rogers Centre mound for the last time as a Blue Jay after whiffing 11 Yankees through eight innings. A crowd of 28,701 gave him a standing ovation, imploring him to re-sign as a free agent. That didn’t work, so expect Burnett to receive the treatment given to Mark Teixeira (Baltimore), Johnny Damon (Boston) and A-Rod (everywhere).
“I’m sure I’m going to get some boos,” Burnett told the media in Baltimore, “as long as I hear a couple of claps in there. But to be honest with you, it’s probably going to fuel the fire. I’m going to channel it that way.”
Burnett needs something to get him going. He’s winless in his last four starts (6.66 ERA) while allowing five home runs and walking 13 in 24 1/3 innings. CC Sabathia stepped up Friday in Baltimore in what everyone hopes will spark a turnaround. Now it’s Burnett’s turn. He’ll have to out-pitch his old friend. Halladay was 3-0, 1.80 in two complete games against the Yankees last season and owns a career record of 15-5, 2.86.