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Pitching key to Toronto's Interleague fortunes

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays haven't exactly been major proponents of Interleague Play in recent seasons, but that's something the club hopes to change this year.

Toronto is coming off four consecutive losing seasons against the National League, and overall, the club is just 123-142 since Interleague Play was introduced in 1997.

That record has severely hampered the Blue Jays in the past and is something that the club would like to change if it expects to hang tough with the other contenders in the American League. The style of play may occasionally be different, but ultimately, success or failure will come down to starting pitching.

"The starting rotation has not only been consistent, but you could point to it as being one of the strengths of this team so far," said Blue Jays manager John Farrell, whose starting staff has ranked in the top five in ERA in the AL for the vast majority of the season.

"I also think that's a main contributor to having a good bullpen. When your starters go deep, guys that come to the mound out of the bullpen don't come with short rest. ... Any time a starter walks out for the seventh inning, I think we're not only in a good area, but sometimes positive territory in terms of what the rotation is doing."

The Blue Jays will be matched up against the NL East this season. Interleague Play gets under way on Friday with the Blue Jays playing host to Mets, and the Nationals and Phillies will also travel north of the border in June.

Toronto's other Interleague matchup will come against the NL Central's Brewers, with the two teams slated to play in Milwaukee. That set will feature the debut of former Brewers prospect Brett Lawrie at Miller Park, while former Blue Jays No. 1 starter Shaun Marcum could be matched up against his old teammates.

Here's a closer look at the upcoming matchups and which players might take on key roles:

Players to watch
Edwin Encarnacion, DH (.232, 12 HR, 27 RBI): The average isn't pretty, but Encarnacion has posted some impressive power numbers in Interleague Play. He's expected to move to first base at NL parks, perhaps relegating Adam Lind to the bench.
Bautista, RF (.267, 22 HR, 57 RBI): The former Pirate has enjoyed a lot of success against NL clubs over the past two seasons and will once again be relied upon to carry the bulk of the offensive load for a Toronto team that has struggled vs. the Senior Circuit.
Yunel Escobar, SS (.278, 3 HR, 19 RBI): Last year, Escobar received a multiyear contract extension while on a road trip during Interleague Play. This year, the former Braves infielder will look to take advantage of his familiarity with the NL and improve upon his largely average Interleague numbers.
Ricky Romero, SP (4-2, 1.88 ERA): Toronto's No. 1 starter has posted typically strong numbers against the NL. He recorded a complete game against the Braves last season, but it came in a losing effort, as he was outdueled by Tim Hudson.

Last year: The highlight of last year's Interleague schedule was the return of Phillies workhorse Roy Halladay to Toronto. Halladay earned a victory in his first game back at Rogers Centre since being dealt to Philadelphia following the 2009 season. The Phillies took two of three, and the Blue Jays finished with an 8-10 record in Interleague Play.

All-time: Interleague Play hasn't been kind to the Blue Jays since its inception. Toronto has managed just a .464 winning percentage and in the past has been hurt by the inability to use a designated hitter in games at NL parks.

vs. Mets, May 18-20: Buy tickets
A visit from David Wright and the Mets will mark the opening of Interleague Play at Rogers Centre this season. New York has exceeded expectations this year and will take a winning record into Friday's series opener, thanks in large part to the resurgence of Wright.

at Braves, June 8-10: Buy tickets
The Blue Jays will make their return to Turner Field, where the club was swept in three games last year. Overall, Toronto has managed to go 6-9 at Atlanta, the city where the Blue Jays clinched their first World Series title in 1992.

vs. Nationals, June 11-13: Buy tickets
The Nationals will arrive with some of the game's top young talent, including right-hander Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, who entered the season ranked as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, according to The Blue Jays are 9-6 overall against Washington, including a 7-2 mark at Toronto.

vs. Phillies, June 15-17: Buy tickets
Halladay will make his second return to Toronto and will likely receive another warm reception in front of what was once his hometown crowd. Halladay ranks among the top three in virtually every pitching category in Toronto history, and the Blue Jays are 18-18 overall against the Phillies.

at Brewers, June 18-20: Buy tickets
Ryan Braun, the reigning NL Most Valuable Player, will lead the Brewers against the Blue Jays at beautiful Miller Park. Toronto has an overall record of 115-158 against the Brewers, who used to reside in the AL East. Lawrie will take center stage, while Marcum will also get some attention from the Toronto media.

at Marlins, June 22-24: Buy tickets
The Blue Jays will get to experience Marlins Park for the first time. The state-of-the-art facility, which opened this year, is located in Little Havana and holds 37,442 fans. Toronto is just 4-17 lifetime against the Marlins, and things could continue to be tough against Miami, which signed Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle this past offseason.

Toronto Blue Jays, Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero