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Smoak, Sanchez sting Twins in Blue Jays' win

MLB.com @gregorMLB

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Blue Jays used to have a reputation for being notoriously slow starters. Not so in 2018.

Toronto put the finishing touches on its first winning record in March/April since 2012 with a 7-5 victory over the Twins on Monday night at Target Field. Justin Smoak and Russell Martin homered, while right-hander Aaron Sanchez picked up his second victory of the year with six strong innings.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Blue Jays used to have a reputation for being notoriously slow starters. Not so in 2018.

Toronto put the finishing touches on its first winning record in March/April since 2012 with a 7-5 victory over the Twins on Monday night at Target Field. Justin Smoak and Russell Martin homered, while right-hander Aaron Sanchez picked up his second victory of the year with six strong innings.

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The Blue Jays finished the month with a 16-12 record, and for the first time in six years won't have to spend the early stages of their season playing catch up. That has been pretty rare in Toronto with a 52-75 (.409) record in March/April over the previous five years, which was the worst winning percentage in the Major Leagues.

"If you look at it for the whole month, I think we played pretty good," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "We had a little down spurt a couple weeks ago, but it's a good team. I like this team. It's only going to get better when Josh [Donaldson] comes back, and I think our rotation will pick it up. Once that happens, we have a chance to be really good."

The offense's consistent production without the everyday presence of Donaldson has been one of the biggest surprises this season. Toronto's lineup has ranked near the top of the American League all year with only the Red Sox and Yankees having scored more runs. When the bats are producing, the wins have followed, with a perfect 13-0 record when scoring five or more.

Regression from some players should be expected, but Toronto's internal hope is that its two big sluggers will offset some of that lost production. Donaldson could return later this week, and Smoak appears to be heating up after a slow start. On April 25, Smoak was batting .229 with just two home runs and a .723 OPS. In five games since then, Smoak has seven hits, including a pair of home runs and five RBIs, including a key two-run shot off Lance Lynn in the series opener vs. Minnesota.

"He's a big part of it," Gibbons said of Smoak. "He had that huge year last year, he's a new player. You never know who's going to start fast, who's going to start slow. Baseball goes in cycles, but it's always nice to get a W. It always comes back to that."

The other thing that will have to change relatively soon for the Blue Jays is more consistency from their starting rotation. Toronto's starting five finished the month with a 5.29 ERA, which ranks 13th in the AL.

The biggest positive for the Blue Jays' staff is a healthy Sanchez, who surpassed last year's innings total on Tuesday night. There have been no signs of the blister issue and Gibbons is on record saying he has no concern about an innings limit after last year's lost season. There was some early season talk about Sanchez's diminished velocity, but he has also unveiled a lethal changeup and has been one of Toronto's most consistent pitchers this season.

Video: TOR@MIN: Sanchez escapes a bases-loaded jam

Sanchez was far from perfect against the Twins but he managed to toss at least six innings for the fifth consecutive start. He allowed six hits and struck out two, throwing 55 of his 93 pitches for strikes. The 25-year-old surrendered a home run to Eduardo Escobar, but managed to hang on to pick up his second victory of the year.

"I felt like today, and this whole first month, just a little bit of inconsistency in terms of workload with my body," Sanchez admitted. "Trying to get back into turning five days over, sometimes six [days], getting my body used to that. I haven't really done it. You can imitate it in Spring Training as best you can, but until you're out here when things count and things are a little bit different, the body starts to ramp up different ways. It's something I'm still trying to get adjusted to but it will come and I'm still pitching well."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The swinging bunt: The Blue Jays loaded the bases with one out in the top of the second inning and then opened the scoring in rather unorthodox fashion. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hit a little dribbler up the third-base line that only traveled several feet but was placed in the perfect spot. Twins catcher Mitch Garver tried to wait for the ball to roll foul, but when he picked it up, home-plate umpire Adam Hamari signaled fair and all runners were safe. Curtis Granderson followed two batters later with a bases-loaded walk as the Blue Jays took an early 2-0 lead.

Video: TO@MIN: Gurriel opens scoring on squibbed single

Osuna Matata: Minnesota cut the lead to the 6-5 by the end of the seventh, but the Blue Jays added one more in the ninth and then handed things over to Roberto Osuna. Toronto's closer allowed three runs over his last two outings and encountered more difficulties in the series opener. Max Kepler hit a two-out double that put the tying run on second base, but Osuna then got Robbie Grossman to fly out to center for save No. 7 on the season.

Video: TOR@MIN: Osuna retires Grossman to lock down the save

SOUND SMART
Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar extended his hitting streak to five games with a double in the second inning. He is batting .389 (7-for-18) during that stretch and he also has 16 extra-base hits on the year, which is a team-high.

UP NEXT
Right-hander Marco Estrada (2-2, 6.00) will take the mound when the Blue Jays continue their three-game series in Minnesota with first pitch scheduled for 8:10 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Estrada has been plagued by the long ball this season, having allowed seven home runs in five starts. Last year, Estrada allowed a career-high 31 homers in 33 starts. Minnesota will counter with right-hander Kyle Gibson (1-1, 3.33).

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

Toronto Blue Jays