Gibbons optimistic Blue Jays can keep pace

TORONTO — Seldom is the afternoon that John Gibbons is at the ballpark before a game and in a bad mood. But the 51-year-old Blue Jays manager was especially upbeat on Thursday as he leaned on a fungo during early batting practice, laughing and carrying on with a steady stream of Kansas City Royals who emerged from the vistor’s dugout at Rogers Centre to say hi to their old pal Gibby.

Of course, Gibbons had more reason to be in high spirits than simply reacquainting with old friends. His team hadn’t lost in more than a week, winning nine in a row and 14 of its last 16. He was behind the wheel of a club that sat alone atop the American League East with three-game’s breathing room between it and second place. And, finally, for the first time since he agreed to return to manage the club in November 2012, he felt like his players were arriving at the ballpark every day expecting they would leave with a win that evening.

“Anytime you get on a nice little roll and things start going your way and you start winning — you just kind of expect something good’s going to happen for you,” Gibbons said. “That’s a mindset you’ve got to develop over time.”

It has certainly taken some time. Fifteen months ago this built-to-win-now Blue Jays club reported to spring training in Dunedin with all the fanfare, media attention and optimistic forecasts that accompany a team many expected to be very, very successful. You are likely familiar with the fact that it didn’t work out that way. You are perhaps also familiar with the fact that the club’s hesitance to modify the roster during the subsequent winter steeped a groundswell of cynicism and distrust within the fanbase. It’s been a long year and a bit.

But today the Blue Jays are 32-23, which ties them for the second-most wins in baseball and, more importantly, the most of any team in the seemingly-weaker-this-season AL East. They are pitching well enough, fielding fabulously and hitting at a rate that borders unbelievability. It seems there’s something to be said for Gibbons’ point that this team needed some time to come into its own.

“The good teams always seem to expect to win and that’s usually what they do,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think that happens automatically.”

Still, the failure of 2013 is a stench that will likely linger with fans until the Blue Jays qualify for the playoffs. Fortunately for them, that’s not an unrealistic scenario. Going into Thursday night’s loss to the Royals, Toronto had a 65.4 percent chance of reaching the post-season, according to the Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus. And, sure — it’s early. There are two-thirds of a season left to be played and all manner of catastrophe could still conspire to capsize a so-far successful campaign.

But with the Blue Jays being the only team north of 30 wins in the AL  East to this point, it stands to reason that the division could be won with as few as 90 triumphs. For the Blue Jays to do that they would have to go 58-49 the rest of the way, which seems fairly attainable. You could even make it 60-47 to get to the 92 wins that carried the Rays into the playoffs last season, and the record still looks well within the realm of possibility.

What remains to be seen is whether Toronto can continue to find ways to win when the incredible wave of good fortune they are currently surfing on subsides. So far, an awful lot of things have gone their way.

For instance, it helps that Edwin Encarnacion is on an otherworldly mission to eradicate Rogers Centre of all baseballs, hitting a home run every 45 minutes and continuing, for reasons that will puzzle scientists for years, to see pitches within a country mile of the strike zone. It also helps that Juan Francisco, a player who was unable to hold down a job with three franchises prior to this one, has an OPS of .953 in 31 games and more home runs in 2014 than Miguel Cabrera. And it really helps that the club’s defence, which fluctuated between poor and dreadful for much of last season, has suddenly become a tremendous strength, to the point that it practically won the Blue Jays a game Wednesday night against Tampa Bay.

Those things likely won’t continue at their current rates, which is fine, so long as their regression isn’t too dramatic. It’s also worth noting the Blue Jays went on a similar run last season, winning 11 consecutive games in mid-June to propel the team to two games over .500 and four games out of a playoff spot. The team suffixed that streak by losing four of its next five and 19 of its next 26.

Talking in his office on Thursday afternoon, Gibbons concluded he hadn’t learned much from last year’s post-streak collapse and that there wasn’t anything he or his team could do differently to prevent it from happening again. At least, nothing that they aren’t already doing.

“I think this is a better team than the one we had last year and some guys are performing better than they did,” Gibbons said. “I just think we’ve got better players. That usually cures some of that.”

The Blue Jays won’t play as well as they have for the past 25 days forever. They likely won’t play this well again this season. The luck will start to equate; Encarnacion will return to this planet; Jose Reyes will make an unordinary error on an ordinary play in the bottom of the ninth with two out. These things happen. But the prospect of getting to 90 wins and likely making the playoffs by playing .560 ball the rest of the way (playing .600 would practically guarantee a post-season berth) can only be seen as a realistic scenario. It’s very doable.

“We’ll see, though,” Gibbons said, leaning back in his chair and looking very much like a manager who’s seen crazier things happen, which he has.

“It’s not even June yet.”

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