Jays ready to make you believe

Toronto Blue Jays' Dustin McGowan signs a fan's bat at spring training. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

Toronto Blue Jays' Dustin McGowan signs a fan's bat at spring training. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:24 PM ET

TORONTO - The Blue Jays know what a lot of people are thinking. They know they have been deemed baseball’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players. It just stiffens their resolve.

In many pre-season polls they are picked to slip below the Baltimore Orioles, into last place in the American League East. Bring it on, they say.

“We’re a tight group and we feel that nothing is going to tear us apart,” said Ricky Romero, poised to make his first opening night start Friday against the Minnesota Twins.

“We carry that chip on our shoulder now and we’re going to carry it all year. Like I told the guys: ‘Let’s have a little swagger to our rotation.’ Not in a bad way but just to know that we’re the baddest guys out there.”

The skepticism about the Jays around the continent is not without some merit. In saying so long to Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, John Buck and Shaun Marcum, this is a team that lost a lot of experience, an important commodity, especially in the AL East.

“Our clubhouse has been loose,” Romero said. “We know we lost some key guys in Vernon, Shaun and Lyle and some other guys who moved on but our clubhouse has a strong bond. It’s not just the pitching staff, not just the relievers. It’s all of us. It’s something that’s very special. It’s something that can take you a long way when you realize we have each other’s backs.”

The Jays won 85 games last year by pitching better than anyone had a right to expect and by hitting home runs at a rate that led the majors by a country mile. The hope and belief in the clubhouse is that the pitching will be just as good, maybe even better with another year of experience for their young starters and that the offence will be a bit more balanced to take advantage of some measure of added speed.

“We went through six weeks of spring training to come north and win, not to be somebody else’s opponent,” said rookie manager John Farrell.

“We are here, prepared to compete relentlessly. Whatever number that comes to be on the last day, we’re prepared to find that out and to be, along the way, honest with ourselves.

“We know we have some challenges internally. That can also be said in 29 other cities. This is a group that had a lot of momentum built throughout the course of last year. You could see the confidence grow on the field and we want to bring that along. Within the industry, teams know there are a lot of good players here and that we can compete with anybody in the league.”

Farrell spent the past four years as Boston’s pitching coach and, as a guy who pitched against the Jays in the early 1990’s, he has an interesting perspective on what is possible here, given the direction the organization is going.

“Boston may be one of the better environments the game has to offer from day-in, day-out electricity,” he said. “But having played in this ball park at a time when this was the place to be, in Toronto, and that electricity was here, we’re hopefully in the early stages of recapturing that environment here.

“We’re hopeful of trying to change the mindset of a hockey town back into a baseball town.”

Aaron Hill, who just turned 29 less than two weeks ago, finds himself one of the elder statesmen in the clubhouse but he is enthused by the team’s attitude.

“It’s not bad to be young,” he said. “Young teams tend to get overlooked but we can be dangerous, too. We might be at the all-star break and people still might not know who we are but we might be sitting a few games above everybody.”

Well, maybe. We’re more ready to buy in to Jose Bautista’s slightly longer term vision. A five-year contract will allow you to think beyond tomorrow, after all.

“We’re a hungry team,” Bautista said. “In our division maybe a couple of the teams that are on top right now are getting a little older. Over the next three to five years, we’re going to be together longer and getting better and better as we play together.”

If Romero is right, they might not have to wait that long.

ken.fidlin@sunmedia.ca


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