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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Blue Jays quietly have AL's best record

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

The Blue Jays' fast start should be a boon to gate receipts. True, the team ranks 27th in the majors in attendance after five weeks. But Toronto sports fans, wrung out after a winter of watching the Raptors and Maple Leafs fail to make the playoffs, need someplace to invest their energy, right?

From top to bottom, the Jays' 22-12 record is doing wonders for organizational pride. The entire outfield, most of the pitching staff and second baseman Aaron Hill are homegrown. Adam Lind and Travis Snider are promising young hitters, and no one is poking fun at the Jays anymore for selecting pitcher Ricky Romero ahead of Troy Tulowitzki in the 2005 draft.

Roy Halladay
Roy Halladay is tied for the American League lead with six wins.

Best of all, for baseball journalists everywhere, the Jays' superb play is putting a new slant on a tired storyline. Instead of assaulting general manager J.P. Ricciardi with the question, "When are you going to trade Roy Halladay?" inquiring ball writers can feel free to ask "Who the heck is Scott Richmond?"

If Boston, New York and Tampa Bay had broken out of the gate quickly and left the Blue Jays in their dust, contending clubs everywhere would be assembling trade proposals for Halladay, who will enter the "walk year" of his three-year, $40 million contract this winter.

Quietly, subtly, the question has been turned sideways: If Toronto contends for a playoff berth or makes the postseason, could it improve the chances of re-signing Halladay before he approaches free agency?

"I think deep down Doc likes being a Blue Jay, and he wants to be a part of what we're trying to do here," Ricciardi said. "If he looked up and said, 'This is the '62 Mets,' he'd probably say, 'I'm out of here.' But he's smart enough to see we've done some good things here, and the future is bright."

Indeed, the main reason Ricciardi hasn't already approached Halladay about a contract extension is that he doesn't want to interfere with his staff ace's in-season mojo.

"Knowing Doc, I don't think he's someone you want to do that to in the middle of the season," Ricciardi said. "He's so focused and so driven. Cripes, he takes his side sessions as seriously as his starts. I just don't think it's in his DNA to want to do that right now."

Halladay and his rotational understudies -- known in Toronto as "Doc and the interns" -- have done some terrific work in a publicity vacuum this season. But that's about to change.

After playing 34 games against the American League Central, the AL West and the Baltimore Orioles, the Jays are ready to turn their focus toward the Eastern time zone. The odyssey begins Tuesday night at the Rogers Centre when Halladay takes on New York's A.J. Burnett, who left Toronto to sign a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Yankees in December.

This pitching matchup is about as close as you get to must-see viewing in mid-May. Last year, Halladay and Burnett combined for 38 wins, breaking the franchise record for a tandem set by Jack Morris and Juan Guzman in 1992.

Burnett, who had a reputation as a talented-yet-underachieving tease in Florida, applied himself in Toronto with help from Halladay and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and took his game to a new level before exercising an opt-out clause to leave the Jays. He still trades text messages with Halladay after every start and worships the FieldTurf that Halladay walks on.

"I've always said that things happen for a reason, and I went to Toronto for a reason," Burnett said. "It was three years instead of five years, but I believe that reason was to get around Halladay and Arny and get some things figured out. I'll never forget my time there. I learned so much in that three-year period."

J.P. Ricciardi It's a long season. If judgment day for us is May 12, I would think we're in some kind of trouble.

-- Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi

There's a temptation, naturally, to blow the New York series out of proportion in Toronto, but the Jays aren't buying into the hype. They'll play 54 games against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox this season, so it's a little early to start hyperventilating.

"It's a long season," Ricciardi said. "If judgment day for us is May 12, I would think we're in some kind of trouble."

Although San Diego, Pittsburgh and some other early feel-good stories have faded, there's reason to believe the Blue Jays have some staying power. They've won 87, 83 and 86 games the past three seasons but generate little publicity because they play in the shadow of the Red Sox, Yankees and now the Rays in the East.

The die-hards in Toronto also have grown accustomed to something going wrong eventually. In 2007, the Blue Jays ranked third in baseball in team ERA but a disappointing 17th in runs scored. Last year, the Toronto staff led the majors in ERA, but Vernon Wells, Scott Rolen and Hill missed a combined 208 games because of injury, and the offense ranked 21st in runs.

So far this spring, the Jays have handled every obstacle in their path. When closer B.J. Ryan went down with tightness in his shoulder and upper back, the Jays received airtight relief from Scott Downs, Jason Frasor and an unheralded bullpen. Now Ryan is expected to return this weekend against the White Sox.

The Jays also have weathered the absence of Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, Romero, Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch -- five pitchers age 26 and younger. Romero, Janssen and Litsch could all return from the disabled list by the end of May, but Marcum and McGowan are iffy to contribute this season.

Manager Cito Gaston might eventually have trouble finding innings for everyone. What will the Jays do with journeyman Brian Tallet, who carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against Cleveland and two-hit the Athletics for seven innings on Saturday? Or prospect Brett Cecil, who was masterful in throwing eight shutout innings against Oakland on Sunday?

The most heartwarming story belongs to Richmond, a British Columbia native who's making a breakthrough at age 29. When Richmond beat Baltimore this past September, he joined Paul Quantrill as the only two Canadian-born starters to win games for Toronto. Now he's 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA.

Although there's a temptation to dismiss Richmond as a mirage, he throws his fastball at 90-92 mph and complements it with a strikeout slider, an evolving curveball and a changeup against lefties. That's not a bad repertoire for a former Edmonton Cracker-Cat who was discovered at an independent league tryout camp organized by Toronto scout Rob Ducey.

"Are we going to find a Scott Richmond every year? No," said Jays assistant GM Alex Anthopoulos. "But even if we find one every 10 years, it's worth it."

Toronto's impressive play has focused some deserved attention on Gaston, who returned from an 11-year managerial sabbatical this past June and has led the Jays to a 73-49 record since taking over for John Gibbons. Gaston is a valuable resource for Toronto's hitters, and he has provided what Ricciardi calls a "semblance of order" and a calming influence in the clubhouse.

Cito Gaston
Cito Gaston is 73-49 in 122 games since taking over as Toronto's manager in June.

"Cito is amazing, man," Burnett said. "He just lets you play. If you ain't on time, he'll let you know. Besides that, he believes that you're a grown man in the big leagues, and you should know your job, and you should know what you need to do to prepare."

The stress level on Toronto's pitching staff has been reduced by an offense that leads the majors with 204 runs scored. The Toronto pitchers also take their cue from Halladay, who is quietly on a Hall of Fame track at age 32. Since 2006, Halladay leads all major league starters with 743 1/3 innings pitched. With his 6-1 start this season, he has raised his career record to 137-67.

Halladay's record is subject to change, obviously. But according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three other pitchers in the modern era with as many victories as Halladay posted more than twice as many wins as losses. The threesome consists of Lefty Grove (300-141), Whitey Ford (236-106) and Pedro Martinez (214-99).

Talk about elite company. With the possible exception of Johan Santana in New York, Halladay is the surest thing in a major league rotation.

"He's the best," Ricciardi said. "That's the only way for me to describe him. No one prepares like him, and no one competes like him from our end. Even when Doc doesn't have his best stuff, he still finds a way to give you six or seven innings and keep you in the game. He's the epitome of what a No. 1 should be, and we know we're blessed to have him."

This is the type of quote that Halladay's agent might photocopy and keep handy in the event the Blue Jays want to broach an extension this winter. It's not the best way for a team to build bargaining leverage. But Ricciardi and the Jays have much more important things on their mind at the moment.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.