TORONTO – The first-place Blue Jays hit the halfway mark of the season with 45 wins and a two-game lead on Baltimore in the American League East, territory unfamiliar to a franchise still waiting for its first playoff game since October 23, 1993, the night Joe Carter walked off Mitch Williams into World Series lore.
"I'm proud of the way the guys played," said manager John Gibbons. "It was kind of a so-so start and we kicked it in there in the month of May and put ourselves in a good position. Now, you know, we just need to do that again in the second half or even improve on that but I'm very, very happy with the effort and the way the guys have been playing baseball. It's that simple."
You won't find a 'Mission Accomplished' banner hanging in the clubhouse. The expectation is much greater.
"Has it met it yet? No," said Casey Janssen. "Our expectation is to make the playoffs and win the World Series and we're not there yet. We've got a long way to go. I think everyone believed we could be this type of team but we're not throwing a party yet, we know that. We know there's a ton of talent here and it's the AL East so anything can happen."
Despite a recent downturn in offensive production, through 81 games Toronto continues to sit in the top seven of most major categories. The club sits first in the majors with 104 home runs. It's fourth with a .262 batting average and .331 on-base percentage. The on-base plus slugging percentage of .767 ranks third and its 272 walks are seventh.
The most pleasant surprise and biggest disappointment reside on the same spot: the pitcher's mound.
The pleasant surprise: Blue Jays starters lead the American League with 35 wins (a number not reached until the 135th game last season) and the staff ERA of 3.87 is best in the AL East.
The biggest disappointment: the bullpen, the ray of sunshine in a stormy 2013 season, has compiled baseball's fourth-worst ERA (4.48). It's a target for improvement.
"I think there are some times when we've got to be better in the bullpen," said Gibbons. "We've got to shore that up a little bit. It's like anything, consistency over the whole pitching staff and hopefully you stay healthy enough."
The Blue Jays have been fortunate to remain relatively healthy, dealing with injuries they've been able to cover. Maicer Izturis was a backup infielder. Brandon Morrow wasn't pitching well when he got hurt. Colby Rasmus missed 33 games with a hamstring strain and the Jays got by with an Anthony Gose-Kevin Pillar platoon in centerfield.
The medical staff is now doing the dance with Jose Bautista as he deals with a hamstring problem, which could be made worse if rushed.
Bautista will run sprints on Saturday morning and depending on how he feels, could be available to at least pinch hit on the weekend.
QUIET TIME FOR JANSSEN
Wondering where closer Casey Janssen has been these days? He's around. He just hasn't pitched much due to a lack of save opportunities.
Since notching his 12th save of the season on June 15 in Baltimore, Janssen has appeared twice. He mopped up the epic, 14-9 comeback win on June 20 in Cincinnati. He threw the ninth inning of a 6-6 game against the Yankees on June 24 and got the win when the Blue Jays walked off.
It can be difficult for relievers when they go through a period without consistent work.
"I feel like saves come in bunches at times," said Janssen. "You get opportunities to pitch maybe in a lopsided game one way or another if it gets to be too long. Sometimes there are times when you don't get in but you get up. I'm one of those guys that always has relied on my command and I guess it comes a little more natural to me than others."
Janssen has 12 saves in 14 opportunities this season.
"Sometimes the rest is good, knowing that the tough stretch is going to come at some point," said Janssen.
Expect Janssen to get into a game before the weekend is over, regardless of whether Toronto has a lead of three or less. Janssen speaks to pitching coach Pete Walker about his schedule, who relays the message to manager John Gibbons. If Janssen goes four or five days without action his arm's reaction to its diminished workload becomes less predictable.
"You wonder if your arm's going to be a little cranky or if it's going to be super fresh," said Janssen. "Sometimes you feel great when you get the rest and sometimes you're kind of knocking the dust off a little bit."
Remember that Janssen had an abbreviated spring training thanks to stiffness in the back of his pitching shoulder. He didn't appear in a Grapefruit League game until the final week of March. Then, in Montreal, he strained his left oblique and didn't make his season debut until May 12.
It's been a build for Janssen, who anticipates being able to pitch on three consecutive days, if needed, as the importance of each game ramps up.
"I feel like I'd love to do it and I'd love to have the opportunity to do it," said Janssen. "I think a lot of those three in a rows depend on how the first two went and the stress level of those innings. My goal is to be able to pitch in every opportunity possible, especially as the season gets further along and as this division and the race gets tight and everything like that."