As team has shown during red-hot month, pieces are there for special season
By Hal Bodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Blue Jays had barely worked up a sweat in Spring Training when skipper John Gibbons could sense something special.
"A few days in, I knew there was something different about this group," Gibbons said the other day. "We knew we had the talent, but it's been a disappointing team the last couple of years even with the guys we brought in. But this had a much better feeling."
Looking over a paper filled with stats, Gibbons added, "This one, I think, has got something special. Like I said, there are some big personalities here, but they seem to jell pretty good. Where this takes us, I don't know. We have to address some things."
Gibbons' office at Tropicana Field was empty now. All the superlatives about a near-perfect game by Marco Estrada on Wednesday afternoon had been said. A hard-fought 12-inning 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay was in the books. And the giddy Blue Jays were packing for a flight back to Toronto.
"How would I describe it?" Gibbons said. "I'd say steady. It's a unique group."
After taking two of three games at The Trop -- which Gibby labels "The House of Horrors" -- the Blue Jays are 20-9 since May 24. Included in that run is an 11-game winning streak.
It's fitting they squeezed out their 1-0 getaway win on Chris Colabello's homer, because the Blue Jays make a living with the long ball. But a 1-0 win is an anomaly for this juggernaut. Toronto leads the Major Leagues with 405 runs, averaging nearly eight per win and has scored six or more in 21 of its last 25 wins.
The Blue Jays are in third place, just two games behind first-place the Rays in the American League East.
Estrada became the first pitcher to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning in consecutive starts since Toronto's Dave Stieb on Sept. 24-30, 1988. In Estrada's last two starts, he's 1-0 with a 0.57 ERA, with 16 strikeouts and just three hits allowed.
There were hints when Tampa Bay came to bat in the eighth inning this was going to be an historic game for Estrada. Third baseman Josh Donaldson dove into the stands to snare a foul pop off the bat of David DeJesus to preserve what then was a perfect game. But Logan Forsythe followed with an infield single, and it was over.
The Blue Jays, like the Rays, wasted scoring opportunities until Colabello's blast to left-center off Brandon Gomes with one out in the 12th.
Had the Blue Jays not prevailed, a setback could have been devastating. Toronto had been beaten by Chris Archer and Tampa Bay 4-3 on Tuesday night. To have wasted Estrada's brilliant 8 2/3 scoreless innings would have undoubtedly had a negative effect.
Teams seldom get over that type of loss quickly.
"Going home after winning this series is huge for us," said shortstop Jose Reyes. "It would have been tough to lose a game like this. It would have hurt, especially since [the Rays] are the first-place team."
"This was one of those games that can go a long way for you, but it also could have gone the opposite way," he said. "I'm proud of the guys. This is a more character team than we've had in the past. They just don't quit. Sometimes you lose your intensity, but it doesn't happen with this group."
The Blue Jays, who haven't been to the postseason since Joe Carter's legendary homer that won the 1993 World Series, made significant -- and costly -- offseason moves prior to the 2013 season. They were preseason favorites to win their division, but fell flat, finishing last with a 74-88 record. Last year, they ended 83-79, in third place.
"No question, those seasons were disappointing," said Gibbons. "I believe this team has more character, more determination."
But when Gibbons said, "We have to address some things," he was referring to pitching. There's talk the Blue Jays are interested in Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon. Or maybe the Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez.
If general manager Alex Anthopoulos is successful in adding a premier relief pitcher who can shore up the shaky bullpen, Toronto has the potential to finally return to the postseason after 22 years.
Donaldson, obtained in an offseason trade with Oakland, is the No. 1 third baseman in the AL. He leads the Jays with 17 homers and 46 RBIs, an impact player and an important addition for Toronto.
"The sign of a good team is being able to win multiple ways," Donaldson said. "We feel like especially this month, we've been turning the corner and hopefully it's lining up positive for us."
A special team?
"We have a lot of new faces, but the clubhouse chemistry is the best," said Reyes. "Yes, it is a special team."
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.