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Donaldson dominates Blue Jays' first half

Estrada, Sanchez lead surprising, impressive staff
July 11, 2016

TORONTO -- There's no denying that the Blue Jays got off to a slow start this season. But things sure have changed since then.Toronto entered the All-Star break tied for second place in the American League East and two games back of first-place Baltimore as the Blue Jays look to

TORONTO -- There's no denying that the Blue Jays got off to a slow start this season. But things sure have changed since then.
Toronto entered the All-Star break tied for second place in the American League East and two games back of first-place Baltimore as the Blue Jays look to win back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1992-93.
This might not be the exact position the Blue Jays wanted to be in at the All-Star break, but it's also not far off. Unlike some previous seasons, Toronto did enough to survive in the first half and did not get buried in the standings. Now it's time to finish the job.
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"It has been a little bit of a roller coaster at times, but for the most part, we've been playing pretty well," said Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson, whose team entered the break a season-high 11 games over .500.
"It starts with our starting pitching. They've been pretty phenomenal up to this point. Hopefully we get Marco Estrada back healthy and [R.A.] Dickey continues going out there and doing his thing ... The fact of the matter is we feel pretty good about where we're at right now."
Here's a look back at Toronto's first half. What went right, what went wrong and how the club managed to bounce back from a disappointing April.
The hope going into this season was that Toronto's starting rotation would pitch well enough to contend. With a high-powered offense, the theory was that the Blue Jays' starters just needed to keep their club in the game and the offense would do the rest. Fast-forward nearly four months, and the rotation has done a lot more than that.
Toronto starters lead the AL with a 3.64 ERA, 579 1/3 innings and a .236 opponents' batting average, and they are second with a 1.20 WHIP. Aaron Sanchez is an All-Star, Estrada showed he was not a one-year wonder and J.A. Happ has proven his somewhat controversial three-year deal -- worth $36 million -- is a bargain. The Blue Jays aren't winning games in spite of their rotation, they are winning games because of their rotation. Nobody saw that coming.

Toronto's offense got off to a surprisingly slow start this season. Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar, José Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion all struggled during the first month of the season. The Blue Jays went 19-23 through May 18, and they were averaging four runs per game. After that, Toronto went 32-17 and averaged 5.69 runs per game.
The Blue Jays' bullpen also was a problem early in the year, but unlike the offense, there are still some concerns about how that group will fare in the second half. Closer Roberto Osuna has been as-advertised and setup man Jason Grilli has helped, but the group as a whole has underperformed. Toronto leads the league with 20 losses out of the bullpen, and its 4.09 ERA ranks ninth in the AL.

The AL East is up for grabs. Toronto managed to survive its slow start and now enters the break within striking distance of Baltimore. The second half appears to be a three-horse race between the Orioles, Blue Jays and Red Sox, while the Rays have completely fallen out of contention and the Yankees might not be too far behind.
Toronto has the offense, it has the starting pitching -- especially if Sanchez somehow remains in his current role -- but what we haven't learned yet is whether it has enough depth in the bullpen. Brett Cecil is finally healthy, Joe Biagini has proven to be a nice fit, but this club needs a little bit more help before the final innings arrive with a little bit more certainty.
Donaldson picked up the first AL MVP Award of his career last season, and he'll be in the discussion once again in 2016. He became just the sixth player in AL history to enter the All-Star break with at least 20 home runs and 80 runs scored. The list he joined is an impressive one: Lou Gehrig (1934), Ted Williams ('44), Reggie Jackson ('69), Frank Thomas ('94) and Alex Rodriguez (2000). Donaldson is hitting .301 with 22 home runs and 60 RBIs, and a big second half could lead to a possible AL MVP Award repeat.
Estrada and Sanchez both made the All-Star team, and while Sanchez was an injury replacement, he was deserving of an original selection. They have ERAs below 3.00, but they each do it in a very different way. Estrada is the classic finesse pitcher that keeps hitters off balance, while Sanchez can overpower hitters with his upper-90s velocity and a wipeout curve that leads to a lot of strikeouts.
The Blue Jays have a roster filled with veterans, so there are not too many candidates that fit this category, but Biagini is the obvious choice. He entered Spring Training as a Rule 5 Draft pick via the Giants, and he wasn't originally expected to make the team, but a strong camp changed all of that. Biagini earned a spot as the club's long reliever, but his success this season also earned him some high-leverage innings. He enters the break with a very respectable 2.91 ERA in 34 innings.

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.