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Tough stretch will show where Jays really are as team

John Schneider Alek Manoah Toronto Blue Jays John Schneider Alek Manoah - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays are about to be tested in a big way, and the next month of baseball is going to teach everyone a lot about how to feel about this ball club heading into the summer months.

At 21-16, manager John Schneider’s group has generally looked like one of the better teams in baseball over the first six weeks of the season, but there have been bouts of inconsistency and poor pitching, especially in the rotation at times.

This is where things really get difficult.

As the Jays head into their longest first-half homestand of the season, a 10-gamer that will bring the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles to town, first consider what’s facing them over the next month:

  • Only one off-day between May 12 and June 12, with the Braves series starting a run of 17-straight games.
  • The collective record of the three visiting teams this homestand is 70-43.
  • The month of May finishes with 11 crucial division games. After those May divisional games, just six of their next 55 — Baltimore in mid-June and Boston to begin July — are against AL East opponents.
  • The eight opponents they’ll face over the next month — the Braves, Yankees, Orioles, Rays, Twins, Brewers, Mets, Astros and Twins again — currently hold an overall combined winning percentage of .589.

Blue Jays board

The Jays come back to Toronto cold, having gone 3-7 over their last 10, and have seemed to alternate between looking like world-beaters and a middle-of-the-pack club, sometimes in the same week.

Having played the fewest home games in baseball thanks to off-season stadium renovations and a couple of long early roadies, Schneider is happy to be home and he knows what’s ahead.

“Yeah, I forgot what my white pants looked like,” a relaxed Schneider said from his office Friday evening.

“It’s another tough stretch with 30-out-of-31 and 17 in a row and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than here (to start it). Hopefully, it kind of re-energizes the guys a little bit after a crappy road trip.”

With the second-best winning percentage in the league at home and a 9-3 record, the Jays have been able to at least take advantage of their 12 home dates — the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets are next at 15 home games apiece — thus far.

Conversely, the Braves come into Toronto as far and away the best road team in baseball, running up an impressive 15-3 record away from Hotlanta.

Starting with one of the best teams in baseball and the NL East division leaders is an obvious litmus test to begin the difficult stretch, but staying in the moment over the next 31 days is the key.

“I think it’s one game, one series at a time and not looking ahead to who we’re playing after Atlanta, just focusing on them,” Schneider said. "Other teams are saying that it’s going to be a tough series when they come in here, too, and I think understanding that and just getting back to what we’re good at — having good at-bats and getting good starting pitching and making good defensive plays. When you look at the opponents, it should be fun, it should be exciting and it’s an important part of the season for us.”

While the AL East is always a dogfight, that rings true even more so this season.

It’s still fairly early, but there doesn’t seem to be a doormat.

The fundamentally sound Rays are really good, the up-and-coming Orioles are showing they could be for real, the Red Sox can score runs in bunches, and the Yankees are without a doubt going to be in the mix when all is said and done.

Also playing a role in nine American League teams playing .500 ball or better — including the entire AL East — is the new balanced schedule.

“You look around our division and it’s like, ‘wow,’ you know, it’s tough,” Schneider said. “You compare it to other divisions with a little bit more separation between the top and bottom and I think you just have to worry about you and what you’re trying to do against your opponent and hopefully get some help along the way.”

Despite this being his 13th season as a major leaguer, the balanced schedule is new to even Brandon Belt, who has seen every type of long homestand or road trip possible over his decade-plus career.

Seated comfortably in a plush chair inside the Blue Jays clubhouse on Friday, Belt’s advice to teammates is just to stay calm through a busy and important stretch as they wind towards the dog days portion of the schedule.

“I think you’ve just got to stay as level-headed as possible,” Belt said. "Honestly, the first part of the season we’ve been on the road a lot, a couple 10-dayers and, to me, that’s pretty tough. You can’t put too much emphasis on how tough a homestand or road trip’s going to be. It’s a long season and you’ve just got to stay the course through it. You’re going to have some bad ones and you’re going to have some good ones.”

Some players don’t pay much attention to the standings early on, knowing that playing good baseball and simply stacking as many Ws as possible is more important than keeping pace.

Belt is not one of them.

He’s been eyeing the competitive AL East race on a daily basis, and will continue to do so.

“I look at it from day one,” Belt said. "I want to be in first place every day of the year. I think we’re all aware of it, but it’s one of those things where you can’t panic if you’re not up there. Like I said before, you’ve just gotta stay the course. Over 162 games, I believe we’re the best team in the division. I think we’ve just got to keep that in mind and not get too upset when it doesn’t happen early.”

When this stretch is completed, 95 games will remain and it may not feel early anymore, especially if these 30 games in the next 31 days don’t go as planned.