Opportunistic Jays making quality starters pay

Juan Francisco and Brett Lawrie hit consecutive home runs in the sixth inning and the Blue Jays swept of the Detroit Tigers with a 7-3 victory.

TORONTO – The list of starting pitchers the Toronto Blue Jays have beaten over the past month already included Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, C.J. Wilson, Justin Masterson, Yu Darvish, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir and Alex Cobb before Justin Verlander became their latest victim Thursday afternoon.

That’s why their current run of 24 wins in 31 contests, bolstered by a 7-3 triumph that completed a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, is quickly moving from hot streak to trend.

It’s one thing to string together some victories against back-end starters and teams in a dry-spell – those types of stretches quickly fade and a team’s true level quickly reveals itself.

A lengthy period of strong play against all comers – they’ve roughed up some weak sisters but they also swept an Oakland Athletics team that came in hot and remains half-a-game up on the Blue Jays for the American League’s best record – is much more difficult to sustain, and suggests this is no fluke, no blip.

Teams don’t consistently beat that quality of starter by accident.

“We’ll see (about that),” said manager John Gibbons. “Or maybe we’re a good team. We’re sure playing like it and it’s fun, makes it fun to come to the ballpark, and these guys are feeling it out there. Confidence is half the battle.”

To be sure the AL-East leading Blue Jays, now 37-24 after a fifth straight win, caught the 31-25 Tigers at the right time, the AL Central leaders having now dropped 13 of their past 17 games.

Verlander, too, isn’t his usual dominant self, having surrendered 24 earned runs in his last five starts, five of them Thursday.

But the Blue Jays have consistently capitalized on the opportunities presented to them and have made opposing pitchers pay for their mistakes. And with a deep lineup that has no real soft spots, the constant pressure opponents face helps to wear them down.

“That’s what it takes when you get on nice little rolls, everybody’s got to do some things,” said Gibbons. “When a team is feeling confident, everybody feeds off that, and everybody buys into it, and everybody thrives. Keep going, we beat another pretty good pitcher today.”

That they did, when the Tigers helped open the door for the Blue Jays to a three-run fourth as Jose Bautista’s lazy leadoff fly ball dropped in off Torii Hunter’s glove and things unravelled in a hurry. Dioner Navarro delivered an RBI single and Erik Kratz followed with a two-run base hit for a 3-2 Blue Jays lead.

J.A. Happ, steady in countering Verlander, allowed an Ian Kinsler run-scoring groundout in the fifth to knot things up, but the Blue Jays responded immediately in the sixth, as Juan Francisco followed an Adam Lind leadoff walk with a two-run homer and Brett Lawrie went deep right after for a 6-3 edge.

It was game over after that and well before Melky Cabrera’s solo shot in the ninth, Happ allowing just three runs in 6.1 innings of work, Chad Jenkins following with 2.1 innings of work and Casey Janssen collecting the final out for his 10th save of the season.

“Everybody’s playing great right now,” said Jenkins. “The offence has been unbelievable, it’s always nice when you’re putting up six, seven, eight runs a game, the pitching staff is doing great, starters are getting deep into games. We’re clicking. It would be nice to keep going.”

As good as the offence has been, the Blue Jays defence has been just as important.

Happ induced two double plays, Jenkins a third and Lawrie stole a hit from Ian Kinsler in the eighth by chasing down his chopper in the 5-6 hole, spinning and throwing a laser to Lind at first.

There’s reassurance for pitchers from both ends of it.

“You’re just trying to keep us in the game and if you can eat some innings and try to get into that sixth, seventh, eighth inning, more often than not these guys are going to find a way to get something across,” said Happ. “It lets you go out there and just try to keep us right there and that’s for the most part what all of our starters have been doing.”

The likelihood is that things won’t go this smoothly all season – it can’t, right? – but it’s getting to the point where other teams should be using the Blue Jays as a measuring stick, and not vice-versa.

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