Sizzling Jays Must Conquer Home Yips

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 23) – The 2014 Major League Baseball season is nearly two months old and no team has clobbered the rawhide quite like the Toronto Blue Jays.

Make that the “first place” Toronto Blue Jays.

John Gibbons’ team leads the American League in virtually every offensive category – putting an exclamation mark on its 13-5 record over 18 matches with a three-game pummeling of the defending world champions at Fenway Park. As always, part of a hot streak is timing and the Jays caught the Boston Red Sox in a rare pitching funk – of which they took full advantage (hammering lefty Jon Lester for seven runs in the first two innings of the series finale Thursday afternoon). The BoSox have lost a Major League-high seven consecutive games and are five games behind Toronto in the A.L. East standings. The Blue Jays are a season-best four games over .500 in their surprisingly feeble division.

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BLUE JAYS HAD NO TROUBLE AT ALL WITH THE GREEN MONSTER AT FENWAY PARK, SWEEPING THE ICE-COLD BOSTON RED SOX IN THREE GAMES. SPORTSNET IMAGE

Additionally, consider the following:

? Toronto leads the Major Leagues with 67 home runs.

? Blue Jays have scored first more frequently than any team.

? Wednesday night, Edwin Encarnacion became the first-ever Blue Jays player to slug 11 home runs in a 15-game span.

? Veteran lefty Mark Buehrle – the consummate pro – is a Major League-leading 8-1 and arguably the best starting pitcher in baseball right now.

? Jays have also been spectacular defensively, led by third-baseman Brett Lawrie – zoned in on the hot corner like never before.

But, now comes the hard part.

A pattern that has prevailed throughout the Jays’ 20-year playoff famine is the club unraveling at SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) after an excellent road trip. And, few have been more splendid than the just-completed 5-1 romp through Arlington TX and Boston. Beginning tonight with Oakland in town, Jays play the most concentrated home portion of their schedule – 16 of 19 games at the ‘Dome against the A’s, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, St. Louis and Minnesota. Only a three-game trek to Detroit, June 3-5, interrupts the streak. And though it is far too early to be looking at the standings, or to suggest the cluster of home games could define the Blue Jays season, another let-down at Rogers Centre will offset the club’s 18-game surge and make it more difficult the rest of the way. This should be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat.

Interestingly, the entire A.L. East is struggling at home with only the New York Yankess playing .500 ball (11-11).

Blue Jays are 10-11 at Rogers Centre; 16-11 on foreign turf.

R.A. Dickey (4-4, 4.20 ERA) was supposed to lead off the bundle of home encounters tonight. Instead, Dickey will be pushed back to Saturday and right-hander Liam Hendriks – a native of Perth, Australia – is up from Triple-A Buffalo to make his Blue Jays debut. This could be interesting. Though Dickey has commanded his knuckle-ball over a stretch of innings this year, he remains the most unpredictable of the club’s veteran pitchers. Hendriks, who compiled a 2-13 record over parts of three seasons with Minnesota Twins, will throw the opener against Scott Kazmir (5-1, 2.39 ERA). Blue Jays have not had a winning season against Oakland since 2010 and – more pointedly – are a mediocre 52-66 all-time against the Athletics at Rogers Centre. If that pattern continues on the weekend, there will be more indication the Blue Jays – post-1993 – cannot uphold their strong road performances.

And, neither will the two-decades-long playoff drought be threatened.

THIS WEEKEND – AT ROGERS CENTRE. SPORTSLOGOS.NET

HABS UP OFF THE MAT

There is still hope for a Canadian representative in the Stanley Cup final after Montreal escaped almost certain demise at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. Consistent with the Blue Jays’ theme of road success, the Habs scored early in overtime and shaved New York Rangers’ lead in the Stanley Cup semifinal to 2-1. All three games have been captured by the visiting team. Canadiens had to quickly shake off New York sending the match into extra time with 28.9 seconds left in the third period. Alex Galchenyuk turned the trick by scoring off a rebound at 1:12 of OT. Game 4 is Sunday (8 p.m. EST) in New York. Will the road pattern continue? And, will Montreal become the first team from our land to play in the Cup final since Vancouver Canucks in 2011?

Stay tuned.

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RANGERS TYING GOAL (LEFT) AND HABS O.T. WINNER (RIGHT). CBC IMAGES

GRAPES AND CRUSHED VELVET

Amid Don Cherry’s incomparable collection of suit jackets appeared my all-time favorite on Thursday’s Hockey Night In Canada telecast from New York. Grapes wore a relatively modest outfit of red crushed velvet, complimented – of course – by a red rose. See for yourself:

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YOUR MAPLE LEAFS FIX

Hard to believe it was 20 years ago that the brief-but-spectacular Doug Gilmour era here in Toronto effectively came to an end with Maple Leafs playing in the Stanley Cup semifinals for the second consecutive spring.

In a 2-3-2 playoff format, and still part of the Western Conference, Leafs defeated the Blackhawks in six games – closing out Chicago Stadium with their series-clinching victory. Next came a seven-game battle with San Jose that Toronto nearly lost in Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens when Johan Garpenlov of the Sharks hit the crossbar behind Felix Potvin in overtime. Mike Gartner scored the winner, setting up a Game 7 at the Gardens two nights later. Wendel Clark broke the ice with one of his patented wrist shots and the Leafs prevailed, 4-2. Toronto and Vancouver squared off in the Conference final. Peter Zezel won the opener at MLG in overtime and it turned out to be the Leafs’ last gasp. Canucks tied the series two nights later then won three straight at the old Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver to take the series in five – Greg Adams’ overtime goal on Potvin eliminating the Blue and White.

Here are some of my scrapbook images from the 1994 playoffs:

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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