The good news is that, heading into Canada Day, the Toronto Blue Jays are still in first place in the American League East. The bad news is that with 78 games left to play, they have removed almost all of their margin for error.
After winning their first five games in June, injuries and a cooling offence caught up with them. They only won seven of their next 22 and finished the month at 12-15, exactly their record in April. In other words, that's two losing months out of three so far this season. Two things are saving them, the general mediocrity of the entire AL East and that brilliant month of May that saw go 21-9.
If you go back to 2002, only twice have the Jays headed into July with a better record than the one they have now. In 2006, they were 45-34 and, in 2003, they were 46-37. In the latter, they tailed off to 42-41 the rest of the way and finished at 87-75, while in the former, they went 42-39 down the stretch and finished at 86-76.
Both were in the era before the extra Wild Card and, in 2003, they wound up in third place in the division, 15 games back of the Yankees in the East and seven-and-half games out of the Wild Card spot taken by the Boston Red Sox. They didn't fare much better in 2006, finishing three games back of the Chicago White Sox for the Wild Card. Even if there had been a second Wild Card, they would have missed it by a game to the Angels.
The Blue Jays will have to go 45-33 the rest of the way to finish with 90 victories, which figures to be around the number they will need to put themselves in the conversation for a post-season berth, division title or a Wild Card.
The AL East will probably be won within the division. The Baltimore Orioles have the best record within the East at 22-16, while the Jays and Yankees are both 17-15. The trouble part for the Blue Jays is they are only 3-6 against the Yanks this season and haven't won in New York so far this season or in all of last year. Seven of the Jays' remaining 10 games against the Yankees are in the Bronx.
On the plus side, they've split with Baltimore thus far in 2014 and six of their remaining nine against the O's are at Rogers Centre. Boston, though still a long shot, is slowly entering the equation again, as well. The BoSox are six out in the East and six out in the Wild Card race. The Blue Jays still have 13 left with Boston, seven at home and six at Fenway.
Tampa Bay is pretty much an also-ran now. The Jays still have 12 left with them, including six in September, but Joe Maddon's teams aren't know for packing it in in the final month.
So the Jays will play 44 of their final 78 games in the East, 22 at home and 22 away. Going 26-1) over than span just might be enough to put them in the playoffs if they hold their own in their other 34 games. To break it down even further though, the Blue Jays and T-Bay have the fewest number of home games left of the teams in the East with 37 apiece. The Yankees have the most with 43 and Baltimore has 41. Although the latter two have stumbled a bit in their own parks this season, being at home and travelling less and playing meaningful games in their own facilities could be a sizeable edge in a close race. Boston, too, has a favourable home/road split at 42-38.
Then there is the matter of strength of schedule down the stretch. The Blue Jays play 40 of their 78 against teams that currently sport winning records and 38 against teams with losing records. The Yankees, on the other hand at my count, play only 38 against teams above .500 and 44 games against teams below .500. Again, that gives them an edge. The Orioles, though, play 48 games against teams with winning records and only 33 against teams with losing marks. So, the Blue Jays and the Yankees get the edge there.
For the Blue Jays, the next five weeks could ultimately tell the tale. In July, they play only nine of their 17 games at home, broken up in the middle by the All-Star Game. After the next two games at home to the Milwaukee Brewers, they hit the road for 10 in 11 days including four at the Oakland Athletics, three at the Los Angeles Angels and, after an off-day, three at Tampa Bay. Then, after a seven-game homestand, they go on another 10-game journey over 10 days that includes three in New York versus the Yankees,
three at Fenway against the Red Sox, culminating with four at Houston against the Astros. If they are still in it at that point, the Blue Jays will at least have a shot. Somewhere near the end of that span, Brett Lawrie should be back, as well.
- With Milwaukee hitting town, it's interesting to compare the numbers of the two guys who were disgraced by PED suspensions that, this year, have been key factors in getting their teams into first place in their respective divisions.
The Brewers' Ryan Braun, coming off his 50-game suspension of last season, is batting .290 for the N.L Central leaders with 11 homers, 46 RBI, an .849 OPS and 18 walks versus 52 strikeouts. Braun also helped the Brewers' cause by agreeing to move to right field this season. Melky Cabrera is having a stand-out season in his own right and has put up almost identical numbers, hitting .299 with 11 homers and 42 RBI, an .809 OPS and 23 walks to 46 strikeouts. Cabrera is playing some strong left field, as well. Both have a decent shot at being at the All-Star game two weeks from Tuesday at Minnesota.
- Speaking of the All-Star game, isn't the Home Run Derby starting to feel like the NBA Slam Dunk Contest? Every year it seems many of the bigger stars opt out. This year, American League captain Jose Bautista has to deal with the fact his own teammate Edwin Encarnacion doesn't want to compete and neither does Orioles slugger, Nelson Cruz. Then, White Sox rookie Jose Abreu, who slugged two dingers at Rogers Centre Friday night against the Jays and is one of baseball's emerging stars, isn't inclined to take part either, though, he apparently hasn't entirely closed the door. Good on Jose Bautista for agreeing to be part of this again. But if most of the other sluggers the fans really want to see don't want to be part of it all, then what's the point?