BOSTON – It's only May.
May means it's still early in the big league baseball season. Teams still have more than 100 games to play. Nothing will be sorted out in the next few weeks, let alone the next couple of days.
Still, there are benchmark series and often times those come when a club squares off against a divisional rival. In this case, it's the Blue Jays trying to emerge from the drudgery and disappointment of 2013 taking on last year's surprising world champions, the Boston Red Sox, in their old, fabled barn called Fenway Park.
Toronto opened the three-game series with a 7-4 victory, a win built on slugging offence and just enough pitching to keep a big early lead from evaporating.
Closer Casey Janssen picked up his fourth save but not without bringing up David Ortiz as the tying run with two on and nobody out in the ninth inning. Not without Ortiz smacking a 2-1 pitch to Providence, Rhode Island, which landed foul and gave Janssen another life and a 2-2 count. He struck out Ortiz on the next pitch.
"They won the World Series last year and if we want to be for real we've got to beat these teams," said Janssen. "We're not scared of them or anything like that. We respect them but we want to beat them. The distance we can separate ourselves from them and any other team in our division is important for us, May or September or whenever it is."
The Blue Jays won for the 10th time in 15 games. Boston lost its fourth in a row and sixth in its last seven. The win improved Toronto to 24-22. The loss dropped the Red Sox to 20-24.
Starter J.A. Happ eked out five innings for the win. It was a Jekyll and Hyde performance, with Happ dominant through the first three innings on the strength of six strikeouts. He started to show signs of coming apart in the fourth, walking two and allowing an infield single to load the bases with one out. Only a Brett Lawrie diving snag of a Xander Bogaerts line drive and the doubling off of Mike Napoli at third saved Happ serious trouble and preserved what was, at the time, a 3-0 Blue Jays lead.
Happ was gone two hitters into the sixth after allowing two runs on three doubles in the fifth and a two-run home run to Jonny Gomes an inning later.
"I think you look around and you guys get the idea that it's pretty casual in here," said J.A. Happ. "But when it's time to play I think everybody gets themselves ready and we're ready to play. We're ready to play and so I think it's always good to try to jump out and get that first one in the series and we'll see what we can do the rest of the games here."
Manager John Gibbons navigated his way through his bullpen, using five relievers to get the final 12 outs. With Drew Hutchison and Mark Buehrle scheduled to pitch on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, taking the first game gives Toronto a strong shot to win the series.
"I don't know if it's bigger than any … but you need to play good," said Gibbons. "Anytime you're playing your division you've got to play good but we've been playing pretty good baseball recently. I mean, we're not even June yet but you want to keep moving forward, not go backwards. So whatever that means."
Toronto had 10 hits on the night, eight of which went for extra bases and four of those were home runs. Edwin Encarnacion had his third multi-home run game of the year and has 10 on the season. Erik Kratz and Melky Cabrera also went deep. Cabrera's home run, off of Pesky Pole in right field, was one of his four hits on the night, bringing his major league-leading total to 62.
It's down to Todd Redmond and Liam Hendriks for Saturday's start against Oakland, which is the first time the Blue Jays will require a fifth starter since Dustin McGowan was removed from the rotation.
Manager John Gibbons expects to make a formal announcement as early as Wednesday.
Marcus Stroman factors into this equation, eventually.
"We're going to build him back up," said Gibbons. "We'll see, couple turns, how we're doing."
Stroman took the loss in Buffalo's 3-2 defeat at the hands of Lehigh Valley on Tuesday night. He pitched five innings, the runs were earned, and he threw 64 pitches. He'll need to get back toward the 85-90 pitch range before being considered for the job.
Hendriks, 25, is 5-0 with a 1.48 ERA for the Bisons this season. He's a strike thrower but that didn't translate into success over parts of three big league seasons with the Twins.
In 30 career appearances, 28 starts, Hendriks is 2-13 with a 6.06 ERA and 5.31 FIP. He's allowed 202 hits in 156 innings pitched.
Rasmus has MRI
Colby Rasmus underwent a precautionary MRI on his ailing right hamstring.
Manager John Gibbons confirmed after Tuesday's game Rasmus has a mild strain, adding Rasmus is "progressing" with his rehabilitation.
Rasmus, third on the club with nine home runs, isn't eligible to return from the disabled list until May 28.
Rasmussen gets the call
Left-handed reliever Rob Rasmussen was recalled on Tuesday afternoon, taking the roster spot of Marcus Stroman, who was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo after Sunday's loss in Texas.
Before the game, he offered his thoughts on making his major league debut at Fenway Park against Red Sox legend David Ortiz, a distinct possibility in a lefty-lefty matchup.
"It would be an absolute dream to be able to come out in your first outing and face such an unbelievably renowned hitter such as David Ortiz," said Rasmussen. "Obviously it's something you start to think about but once the game starts it's back to playing the game like you always have."
Then, it happened. Rasmussen was called on with one out and nobody on in the Boston seventh. Toronto led 7-4 at the time.
"I was fortunate enough that I got the call down, knew I was going to face just Ortiz and so I was kind of able to prepare properly for him," said Rasmussen. "You know, work on what I was going to try to throw him through the at-bat. Once you run in, it's just back to playing baseball."
The Blue Jays are the third organization for the 25-year-old native of Pasadena, California. He was acquired in the offseason from the Phillies, along with catcher Erik Kratz, for reliever Brad Lincoln.
A four-pitch reliever featuring a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup, Rasmussen uses his entire repertoire in the bullpen and feels it allows him to match up well against both right-handers and left-handers.
"My curveball tends to be more 12-6, so it's not necessarily just a left-handed pitch," said Rasmussen. "Couple that with my changeup and I feel I can handle both righties and lefties."
In 13 appearances and 17 innings with the Bisons, Rasmussen has a 2.65 ERA and a 1.294 WHIP.
Ballplayers can never be sure when the opportunity will come. Rasmussen's may be because both Chad Jenkins and Neil Wagner are still within the 10-day window of their most recent options to the minor leagues.
Regardless, he's here and he plans to make the most of it.
"Obviously excitement, obviously there's a little bit of nerves," said Rasmussen. "Not as much from a baseball standpoint, just getting used to the life, checking into the hotel, what to do in the hotel, what to wear, all that stuff. Mostly excitement. It's been hard to kind of put my feelings into words, other than excitement and joy."
Red Sox re-sign Stephen Drew
Shortstop Stephen Drew is back in the Boston fold, agreeing to a one-year, $10-million contract with the Red Sox on Tuesday.
The signing comes a day after Boston placed third baseman Will Middlebrooks on the disabled list with a fractured finger.
Drew, 31, declined a $14-million qualifying offer from the Red Sox and elected free agency. He didn't find work in the offseason.
Word is that Drew will be added to the active roster on Wednesday but because he hasn't faced live pitching since last October, it's expected he'll need at least a week to get into game shape.
With Drew back at shortstop, Xander Bogaerts is expected to shift to third base.