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Toronto finally performing to last year's expectations

Following disappointing 2013 campaign, Blue Jays emerging in American League East

The Toronto Blue Jays might be the most interesting team in baseball. Home runs flying out of the park, solid starting pitching and some attitude emerging, too. In this 16-5 run that has taken them from last place to first in the American League East, they've won by two runs or fewer eight times. They've already come from behind to win eight times this season.

Right fielder Jose Bautista is throwing MVP numbers on the board with 12 home runs, 42 walks, 34 RBIs and a .958 OPS. He finished fourth in the voting in 2010 and third in '11, and if he finally breaks through this season, it would be another line on an already tremendous resume.

If Edwin Encarnacion isn't the most overlooked star player in the entire game, he's on the short list. He's third in the Majors with 14 home runs and is behind only Nelson Cruz and Jose Abreu. He appears on his way to a third straight 30-homer season, but because the Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason, he hasn't gotten the attention he deserves.

That's the thing about these Blue Jays. Almost every scout who saw them in Spring Training was effusive in praising a lineup that had the ability to score runs all sorts of ways. Bautista has Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera in front of him and Encarnacion and Adam Lind and Juan Francisco behind him.

No team has a better first six, so to see the Blue Jays leading the AL in home runs, extra-base hits, slugging and OPS isn't shocking. That they have 15 more home runs than any other AL team, that they have six players with at least eight dingers, well, that'll catch your attention.

They've gotten off to a great offensive start, even with Reyes just now getting hot. He can be one of baseball's most dynamic players, so if he keeps it going, yikes.

What no one saw coming is the emergence of the rotation. Mark Buehrle has been just about perfect, allowing more than two earned runs just one time. R.A. Dickey has bounced back from a tough 2013 with seven straight quality starts. And Drew Hutchinson, long a top prospect, has allowed one earned run in his last two starts combined.

In this 16-5 run that has taken the Blue Jays to 29-22 and a two-game lead in the AL East, their starters are a dazzling 14-4 with a 2.89 ERA. Buehrle and Dickey have led the way, but when Liam Hendriks was summoned from the Minors, he went 5 2/3 innings to beat the A's on Friday. With top prospect Marcus Stroman waiting in the wings, the Blue Jays could be about to get better.

They're not perfect. Their bullpen is still a work in progress, still has nights it gives manager John Gibbons heartburn. But the Blue Jays have a deep farm system and an aggressive general manager in Alex Anthopoulos, so they may have the potential to make changes on the fly.

So on Memorial Day, the Blue Jays will be alone atop the AL East. Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

Going into the season, Toronto was widely picked -- at least by me and Tracy Ringolsby -- to finish last.

How did we whiff so badly?

In Bautista and Buehrle, the Blue Jays have two of the most respected veterans in the game. In Gibbons, they have a manager beloved by his players and respected by his competitors, one who absolutely deserved the second chance Anthopoulos gave him last season.

Maybe we wondered if Dickey could rebound again in a career that has had so many twists and turns. Maybe we didn't know if Hutchinson would fulfill all that potential, if Cabrera would rebound from a bad year, etc.

Maybe, just maybe, we looked at the AL East and saw five teams bunched closely together. The Rays were the most popular pick, but there was a case to be made for the Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox, too.

Now, it all looks different. The Yankees and Rays have been hit hard by injuries. The Red Sox haven't rediscovered their magic. The Orioles finally are close to whole again, so they bear watching.

Still, nothing should distract from the Blue Jays. They were picked to finish first a year ago, but thanks to slumps, injuries and more, they were never really a factor. A year later, they look a lot like the team they were supposed to be in 2013.

For those of us of a certain age, this is a really cool thing. The Blue Jays were one of baseball's model franchises in the 1980s and '90s. They went to the playoffs five times in a nine-year stretch and won the World Series twice (1992 and '93). They led the AL in attendance six straight years, drawing more than 4 million three times.

To be back in first place on Memorial Day is a nice payoff for ownership that has given its baseball staff plenty of resources and to a baseball staff, especially Anthopoulos and Gibbons, who deserves to take a couple of bows.

There are miles to go before anything is decided, but the Blue Jays are riding a wave of confidence and probably building more by the day. All in all, a nice story.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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