MLB Insider: Blue Jays flying high in wacky AL East

  • Article by: LA VELLE E. NEAL III , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2014 - 12:32 AM
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The Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion found his long-ball swing in May. He hit 16 homers last month, tying an American League record set by Mickey Mantle.

Photo: Darren Calabrese • Associated Press via The Canadian Press,

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The Twins defeated the Yankees on Friday to improve to 9-4 against AL East opponents this season. It wasn’t too long ago that the Twins were being manhandled by the division.

Entering Sunday’s game against the Yankees, the Twins have not lost a series to an AL East team this season, taking two of three from the Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles and Red Sox. The Twins are taking advantage of a wacky division.

The Rays were expected to compete for the division title but are battling the Astros for the worst record in the AL.

The Red Sox, the defending World Series champions, lost 10 consecutive games in May.

The Orioles consider themselves to be challengers, but catcher Matt Wieters’ elbow injury hasn’t helped. And where would they be without Nelson Cruz?

The Yankees just aren’t as deep as they were a few years ago, and have earned their mediocre record in Derek Jeter’s final season.

That leaves the Blue Jays, a team many thought was the worst in this division, in first place and looking like a force. Toronto entered Saturday second in the league in runs scored while the other four teams are in the bottom half.

Toronto is a sizzling 20-9 in May, entering Saturday’s game. Edwin Encarnacion has smashed 16 homers this month, tying Mickey Mantle for the AL record and getting within one of Barry Bonds’ record for home runs in May. Mark Buehrle, a former Twins nemesis, is 9-1 with a 2.33 ERA. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey looks more like the pitcher Toronto wanted when it traded with the Mets for him.

With about a third of the schedule complete, teams now know what they have, and the transaction wire in this division will light up over the next several weeks.

Boston already has signed Stephen Drew and reportedly is looking for a center fielder so Jackie Bradley Jr. can be shipped to the minors. The Red Sox could be finished if some of the players who helped them win the title last season don’t come around.

The Yankees reportedly are considering signing free-agent first baseman Kendrys Morales to help their sagging offense, but they need CC Sabathia (right knee) to return from the disabled list in midseason form.

Baltimore, which can’t put a complete game together, is crossing its fingers as Wieters tests his elbow with light throwing. Meanwhile, former Twin Johan Santana, recovering from shoulder surgery, could join the rotation sometime in June.

The Jays aren’t sitting back, as they check on available pitchers. The team that makes the best trade — or gets healthy the earliest — could take the East.

The rulebook states that every division has to have a winner. In a season where up is down and down us up in the East, why not the Blue Jays?

Central Intelligence

Nothing can force change like losing to the lowly Astros. The Royals were swept by Houston last week, outscored 21-5 in three games. The Royals did not focus on the fact their pitching was poor. They looked at the offense, where they have fallen to last in the American League in slugging percentage, home runs and runs scored. Hitting coach Pedro Grifol was fired and replaced by third base coach Dale Sveum. The Royals have hit 24 home runs through Friday — 24!

• The Tigers signed Joe Nathan in hopes he would be the solution to the closing problem that has plagued them in recent seasons. But Nathan has already blown more saves and given up more home runs and earned runs than all of last season.

The Tigers are definitely going to ride it out with Nathan, believing that he knows how to deal with the ups and downs that come with being the last man standing in the ninth. “With a guy who has been through it, like Joe, he can deal with these situations,” Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said.

• The White Sox are coming off of a sweep of the Cleveland Indians and have passed the Twins on the way to second place in the division. It’s somewhat surprising, given how many young players they have used and the injuries they have had. And they are about to get a boost with the return of slugging first baseman Jose Abreu from left ankle inflammation. Abreu, batting .260 with 15 home runs and 42 RBI, will be fitted with a brace and is expected to play Monday when the White Sox visit the Dodgers.

• The Indians entered the weekend on a four-game losing streak during which they averaged 1.7 runs a game, but they scored seven runs Saturday.

Here are three observations …

• Josmil Pinto sees 4.42 pitches per plate appearance and his rate of a home run every 16.6 at bats is the best on the Twins. Get him in the lineup.

• It’s great to see that former Twin Frank Viola has recovered from open heart surgery and is about to return to his role as the Mets’ Class AAA pitching coach.

• Seven home runs in seven days? Now I see why the Astros tried to sign George Springer in spring training to a long-term deal before he spent a day in the majors.

… and two predictions

• Trevor May will beat Alex Meyer to the majors this season.

• Meyer, in fact, will pitch very little for the Twins this season, if at all. They are monitoring his innings and limiting his pitch counts.

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