Division's best currently is for the birds

Jays, O's sit atop AL East

ARLINGTON -- The American League East's two most popular teams squared off in front of a nationally televised audience Sunday night. The teams with division's best record face each other Monday.

Who knew Sunday night's Yankees-Red Sox match up would be trumped by Monday's Orioles-Blue Jays contest? Nobody. It hasn't happened.


"That's the reality and that's been the way it has been, but you get tired of it," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "Ask those guys out there [in the clubhouse] and they get tired of finishing backseat to those teams. That's what everybody is striving for. The whole American League is good, but obviously those two teams are going to be at the top. You play them so many times, it takes a toll on you."

Want the spotlight to shift to Canada? Keep winning.

Entering Monday, the Orioles and the Blue Jays sat atop the division with identical 7-5 records. Boston was 7-6 and Tampa Bay was 6-6. The Yankees were in last place with a 6-7 record. The Blue Jays were coming off a triumphant three-game sweep in Texas.

It's early, very early, but please excuse the Blue Jays for being in a collective good mood lately. Gibbons knows all about the predictions for the AL East and how his club is supposed to finish in the middle or back of the pack; he's just not ready to believe them yet. The way he sees it, every team in the division is capable of winning on any given night.

The Texan speaks with so much confidence, you almost want to believe him. His players apparently do.

"You read about teams that are supposed to lose 100 games, but nobody knows that," Gibbons said. "These are still professional clubs and you still have players on the team that have been good big league players. Baseball is not like football where if you are bigger and stronger, you can just overpower them. Anybody can win in this game and I think we are seeing that."

It's already been quite a ride for Toronto. The Blue Jays went 1-2 against the Yankees to start the season and went on to sweep the Red Sox in the series that followed. They came into Texas riding a three-game losing streak after being swept by Oakland.

"We are playing about .500, but we could be doing better," Blue Jays designated hitter Frank Thomas said. "I think it's early and a lot of the teams are close together. By the end of the month, you'll see teams pull ahead. Hopefully, it's us."

If big Frank hopes to get his wish, the Blue Jays will have to continue to pitch well. Toronto entered Monday fourth in the AL with a 3.60 ERA behind Kansas City (2.58), Minnesota (3.48) and Oakland (3.53). The club was third in the AL in strikeouts with 83, behind Boston and Oakland.

Former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, along with fellow starters Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch are among the league leaders in wins, ERA and strikeouts.

"Our pitching is good," Gibbons said. "I think we have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. That's a bold statement but I really believe it. Top to bottom, we didn't have as many holes to fill as we had in the past."

The return of injured closer B.J. Ryan on Sunday helped fill one gap. Ryan picked up the save in Arlington against the Rangers in his first appearance since last April by giving up a triple to Marlon Byrd, the first batter he faced, but recovering to retire the next three batters in order to seal the 5-4 victory in extra innings.

"It wasn't the prettiest thing ever, but the bottom line, we got it done," Ryan said. "You make some pitches when you have to, kind of back against the wall."

The return of third baseman Scott Rolen, currently on the disabled list because of a broken finger, will bolster the Blue Jays offense, although they seem to be doing just fine without him. Second baseman Aaron Hill leads the team in batting average with a .326 mark. He also has nine RBIs, second on the team to Vernon Wells' team-leading 12 RBIs. Wells is hitting .320 with three home runs. Matt Stairs is hitting .296 and Shannon Stewart is at .280.

"We have a good, complete team," infielder Marco Scutaro said. "We have young guys and some veteran mix. The most important thing for us is to stay healthy. We stay healthy and we can do something good this year."

That's the belief in the clubhouse. Don't be surprised to see players donning team T-shirts with a catchy slogan about teamwork, confidence, underdogs and opportunity in the near future. Just call it a hunch. Bet on a lightning bolt or dumbbell somewhere on T-shirt as well.

"This is such a good league," Gibbons said. "You could almost guarantee the Wild Card was going to come out of the American League East but that's not the case anymore. We have a good bunch of guys, a bunch of gamers. We don't press. We will compete every day."

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.