The Week Ahead: Moment of truth for Blue Jays

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wells-vernon-blue-jays-100530.jpgThe Yankees, Red Sox, and perhaps, the Rays. That was the common thinking on how the AL East race would go entering the season.

The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t listen to those projections and enter the week at 30-22. They’re only in third place and 4 1/2 games back. But their record would be good enough for at least second place in any other division, and would lead the AL West and NL East.

How are the surprising Jays doing it? Quite simply, they are hitting the ball very, very hard. Led primarily by Jose Bautista (15 home runs), Vernon Wells (pictured, 13) and Alex Gonzalez (10), Toronto leads all of baseball with 85 home runs. And it’s not even close, with the Reds and Red Sox tied for second with 67. They also rank first in doubles, first in slugging percentage and second in runs scored.

The offense has survived slow starts by Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, and more than offset a pitching staff that has been predictably mediocre.

They’ve also been somewhat fortunate with the early season schedule, playing 20 games so far against the Orioles, White Sox, Royals, and Indians, and going 16-4 in those contests.

But things change a bit this week things change a bit, as the Blue Jays play host to the two best teams in baseball – who also happen to be division rivals – in the Rays and Yankees. After that, they head to Tampa for three more games before embarking on an interleague road trip to Colorado and San Diego.

It’s a tough couple of weeks to be sure, and will probably bring the Jays back down to Earth a bit. But get through this stretch with a decent showing and maybe we’ll start to believe.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Phillies at Braves, May 31-June 2:
The Phillies have been struggling to score runs and now must face Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. The NL East is getting pretty interesting.

Rockies at Giants, May 31-June 2: In addition to the Ubaldo Jimenez-Tim Lincecum matchup on Monday, we get Jeff Francis vs. Matt Cain on Wednesday. Both teams remain in the thick of the NL West race. 

Reds at Cardinals, May 31-June 2: Cincinnati enters the week with a one-game lead over the preseason favorite Cardinals atop the NL Central. Watching Albert Pujols smash three bombs on Sunday can’t help the Reds’ confidence that they’ll stay there long.

Braves at Dodgers, June 3-6: Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Dodgers have been playing much better of late, climbing within two games of first place in the NL West. On top of that, they’re scheduled to get Andre Ethier back on Monday, who has been on the disabled list since May 18 with a fractured pinkie finger, yet still leads the team in home runs and RBIs. Things are looking up in Los Angeles.

Padres at Phillies, June 4-7: Guess which of these teams has a better record entering the week? I’ll give you a hint: The notoriously thrifty Padres are actually considering adding payroll via the trade market instead of trading away star slugger Adrian Gonzalez.

ON THE TUBE
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Phillies at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:15 p.m.: Reds at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Marlins at Mets (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Brewers at Cardinals (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Rays at Rangers (FOX)
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.: Brewers at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Dodgers plan to tab Clayton Kershaw for Game 1 of World Series

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MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick reports that the Dodgers plan to tab ace Clayton Kershaw for Game 1 of the World Series. Nothing is set in stone yet ahead of Tuesday’s Game 1 of the World Series. In the event Kershaw can’t start Game 1, Rich Hill would start. Otherwise, Hill would start Game 4.

Kershaw, started Game 1 and Game 5 of the NLCS against the Brewers, then closed out Game 7 with a flawless inning. He was hit around to the tune of five runs (four earned) over three-plus innings in Game 1, but rebounded for seven innings of one-run ball in Game 5. He struck out two en route to sending the Dodgers to the World Series in the ninth inning of Game 7.

Kershaw also tossed eight shutout innings against the Braves in Game 2 of the NLDS. Overall, he has a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings this postseason. There was no doubt who would be the Dodgers’ first choice to start Game 1, but it’s a relatively recent situation where the ace of a team also closed out the final game of the previous series.

Hill has put up a 2.61 ERA in 10 1/3 innings this postseason. While he doesn’t have Kershaw’s pedigree, the Dodgers would be confident having him lead off the series. Hill was excellent down the stretch last year, helping the Dodgers reach Game 7 of the World Series against the Astros.

The Red Sox plan to start Chris Sale in Game 1 now that he’s recovered from a brief stint in the hospital due to a stomach ailment. The lefty has a 3.48 in 10 1/3 innings in the playoffs this year. He’s among a handful of candidates for the AL Cy Young award after posting a 2.11 ERA in the regular season, but his lack of innings (158) may hurt him.