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OPINION: Blue Jays in great spot but bigger test awaits

Forget for a minute the bigger-picture questions about the Toronto Blue Jays, and take a minute to simply enjoy what’s happening right now.

When they take the Rogers Centre field Friday night against the visiting Oakland Athletics, owners of baseball’s best record, it will be exactly five years to the day they were last in first place this deep into the season.

The Blue Jays dropped to 27-19 with a 4-3 loss at Atlanta that May 23 in 2009, the fifth of what would become nine straight losses that triggered the long and painful plummet to a 75-87 finish, culminating in the firing of former general manager J.P. Ricciardi on the season’s penultimate day.

So don’t go planning any parades just yet.

Still, the point is not to compare now to then, but to demonstrate how usually by now there isn’t much promise for the Blue Jays. But after Thursday evening’s 7-2 victory at Fenway Park completed a thorough and decisive three-game sweep of the dead-men-walking Boston Red Sox, they’re actually getting stronger as the summer months near.

In a parity-filled American League East division, this has a chance to get real. Savour that possibility.

“Too often at this time of year we’re looking up at a pretty good distance, it seems,” manager John Gibbons said before the game. “I feel good about that. And we’ve had a couple of points this year where we could have gone either way and started disappearing a little bit.
“But the guys hung in there, we’ve hung around, so I feel good about that, too.”

The Athletics will certainly offer a better measuring stick than the Red Sox, losers of seven consecutive games for the first time since they lost eight in a row to close out the 2012 season. They were outscored 37-16 during a six-game homestand that started with a sweep by the Detroit Tigers, and things won’t get easier as they face a stretch of 36 games in 37 days through June 25.

Beantown’s eyes, if not hands, are right on the panic button.

The Blue Jays (26-22) did well to take full advantage of a reeling rival, building up big leads in each of the three games and riding them home. Back-to-back homers by Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista set the tone in the first off Jon Lester, and a five-run second highlighted by a two-run single by Jose Reyes and RBI singles from Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, each to right field, effectively decided things.

Mark Buehrle did the rest, allowing just two runs over seven innings to become the first eight-game winner in the majors. He surrendered a Jonny Gomes RBI single in the first and a Xander Bogaerts in the second but gave up just three hits over the final five innings.

The victory was also the 194th of his career, moving him into a tie for 127th all-time with a group that includes Dwight Gooden, David Cone and Doyle Alexander.

“Everybody talks about team chemistry – when you’re winning, chemistry, all the good stuff happens. But it’s early,” said Buehrle. “Yeah, we came in and swept Boston. We’ve got to feel good about ourselves, but at the same time, we’re going home and facing a good Oakland team, so we’ve got to try to continue it and not step down. We haven’t played as good at home. We play better on the road for some reason. We’ve got to try to keep putting our feet down and try to get some wins at home.”

The Blue Jays are just 10-11 yet 16-11 on the road, but they can change that by doing the little things beyond the obvious that led to an impressive 5-1 road trip that started in Texas. Executing the subtler points of the game suggests the Blue Jays’ current run of 13 wins in their past 18 outings might be sustainable over the long term.

A quality sacrifice bunt by Anthony Gose in the second inning pushed runners at second and third and left Lester little room to manoeuvre. Then, rather than trying to blow things up with one swing, Reyes, Bautista and Encarnacion each punched balls into right field to take what the opposition was giving them.

“That’s how you extend innings and pick up that single RBI along the way,” said Gibbons. “It’s always nice to hit home runs and we’re very capable of that, but those things don’t happen all the time. It’s a product of a good approach that (hitting coach Kevin) Seitzer has been hammering these guys on and things are contagious, too.

“A few guys get hot in that lineup, everybody feels it and wants to contribute, but when you face the better pitchers in baseball, they make less mistakes, so you’ve got to figure out a way to beat them the other way.”

Defensively, they made all the plays they needed to, and in the first two games had several players, most notably Brett Lawrie on Tuesday and Gose on Wednesday, take away hits.

In short the Blue Jays are playing some well-rounded baseball.

The test now lies in making it last through the meat-grinder months, when the contenders get separated from the pretenders, and beyond. It’s not even June yet, so it’s important not to get carried away.

As Bautista put it: “If we were talking about September and we were in first, it will mean something then. To be honest with you, the only time that it counts is after the regular season is over. We still have a long road ahead of us, we’re not going to settle, and we’re not going to look at the fact that we’re in first place now.”

At the same time, it’s been way too long since the last time the Blue Jays were in this spot. Whether or not it lasts, ride the vibe for as long as you can.