03/28/08 10:00 AM ET
Retooled Jays look to fly high in East
Team relishes chance to leapfrog division's powerhouses
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
Ever since capturing the World Series crown in 1993, Toronto has tried unsuccessfully to supplant both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox as the cream of the American League East crop. Only once within that 14-season span have the Jays placed higher than third place in the division -- a second-place finish with no playoff berth in 2006.
The Blue Jays enter the '08 campaign with the same high hopes they've carried into the past few seasons, but Toronto believes this time it could be different. The Jays want that elusive division crown and, while playing in the East presents one of the tougher slates in baseball, Toronto insists that it enjoys the challenge of trying to unseat New York and Boston.
"I like the division we play in," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said, "If we're able to be successful and make the playoffs out of this division, I think you get a greater sense of satisfaction. Not that you wouldn't want to be somewhere else and have more of an opportunity.
"We know what our lot is in life and, if you look at how we compete against those guys, we never have a problem competing against those two. It's just the daunting task of trying to get above them. I think our guys are excited about that."
Toronto will have a chance right out of the gates in a three-game set against the Yankees -- winners of nine straight East titles from 1998-2006 -- and then in a three-game home series against the reigning World Series champion Red Sox. It begins in the Bronx, where the Blue Jays will be on hand for the final Opening Day in the storied history of Yankee Stadium.
"It's the last Opening Day there, and it's an honor to be there," said designated hitter Frank Thomas, who is entering his 19th season. "There's so many great memories in that stadium -- so many great players. I'm honored to be, it seems like, closing it down.
"You've got to play at a high level early. The momentum will be there and you'll definitely be fired up for it. Most people are fired up for the first few ballgames. Everybody's ready out of the gate. We know what to expect. They're a great team."
The Yankees return with the same potent lineup they featured last season, when third baseman Alex Rodriguez led the charge en route to the AL Most Valuable Player Award. The Blue Jays open with a retooled lineup after the offense suffered in the wake of a multitude of injuries a season ago.
Over the offseason, Toronto acquired veteran shortstop and '06 World Series MVP David Eckstein to serve as the club's new leadoff hitter. The Jays also traded for third baseman Scott Rolen, who figures to be an integral part of the revamped offense. Other new faces on the Blue Jays include left fielder Shannon Stewart and utility man Marco Scutaro.
There are plenty of questions contained within Toronto's offense, but the club is banking on its pitching staff to be the real strength of the roster. Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay leads a rotation that includes A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch -- a cast that helped the Jays boast one of the league's best groups a year ago.
That rotation, combined with one of the AL's top bullpens, has Toronto feeling optimistic about its chances of keeping pace with the Yankees and Red Sox within the division. During Spring Training, Halladay noted that he felt the Jays lacked a certain "sense of urgency" a year ago, and that it's time for Toronto to finally take things to new heights.
"I think the guys that have been here in the past," Halladay said, "are starting to get -- not frustrated -- but we're tired of finishing the same every year and not really seeing that progression that we'd like to see. That, with the fact that we're bringing in guys that play the game the right way, I think that makes a big difference.
"For me, it was just a matter of treating every series like we do Boston and New York," he added. "We go and play those guys so well and then there's kind of an emotional let down when we play some of the other teams. For me, we just cant afford to do that in our division. We have to have an attitude of trying to bury teams every chance we get."
TOR: RHP Roy Halladay (16-7, 3.71 ERA in 2007)
The Blue Jays ace is making his team-record sixth straight Opening Day start.
NYY: RHP Chien-Ming Wang (19-7, 3.70 ERA in 2007)
Wang has captured 19 victories in each of the past two seasons with New York.
Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill has hit .643 (9-for-14) with three doubles and three RBIs in his career against Wang. ... Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano has hit .385 (5-for-13) with two homers in his career against Halladay. ... Jays third baseman Scott Rolen (broken finger) is not available for Opening Day. ... Jays closer B.J. Ryan (left elbow) opens the season on the 15-day disabled list.
Wednesday: Blue Jays (A.J. Burnett, 10-8, 3.75) at Yankees (Andy Pettitte, 15-9, 4.05), 7:05 p.m. ET
Thursday: Blue Jays (Dustin McGowan, 12-10, 4.08) at Yankees (Mike Mussina, 11-10, 5.15), 7:05 p.m. ET
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.