Jays outlast Rangers in homer race

Jays outlast Rangers in homer race

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have been overcoming obstacles all season. Nearly a month in, the club has pieced together one of its strongest starts of the decade despite taking the field with a patchwork rotation.

On Thursday night, after injuries sent starter Ricky Romero and closer B.J. Ryan to the disabled list, Toronto continued on its early run, claiming a 5-2 victory over Texas to clinch another series win. Scott Richmond delivered a strong start, the offense provided three home runs and Scott Downs ended the evening with his first save as the new stopper.

For the Blue Jays, who improved to an American League-leading 12-5, it marked the franchise's best start through 17 games since the 2001 squad put up an identical record through as many contests. The series win was the fifth in a row for Toronto, making the club the first in seven years to accomplish that feat to open a season.

The last team to win five series to begin a campaign was the 2003 Giants, who claimed their first seven series that season and finished with 100 victories. The last AL club to open a season with at least five straight series wins was the '01 Mariners. That Seattle squad won nine consecutive sets to begin the year and ended with 116 victories.

Needless to say, it is an impressive accomplishment for Toronto.

"Is that right?" said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, when hearing how long it has been since a team achieved the same feat. "It's nice to be in good company."

Things won't get any easier for Toronto, which hits the road for a seven-game swing through Chicago and Kansas City with a depleted pitching staff. The Jays have yet to face an AL East opponent, taking series against the Tigers, Indians, Twins, A's and Rangers over the first three weeks.

Still, the Jays have run through those five sets without dropping two games in a row at any point. They've done so with a high-octane offense and a relatively inexperienced rotation that has performed admirably. Consider that, with starters Jesse Litsch (right elbow/forearm) and Romero (right oblique) on the DL until around mid-May, Richmond is now the third starter by default.

Richmond -- a rookie at 29 years old -- barely cracked the Opening Day rotation. Since then, the right-hander has given Toronto no reason to second-guess its decision to hand him a job and Richmond isn't feeling any added pressure in light of the recent injuries.

"We've had a couple bad breaks here to start the season," Richmond said. "But they're not on long DL stints and they're coming back quick. I'm just trying to focus on every time I go out there, doing my job to the best of my ability -- give our bullpen a break and try to go deep into the game."

Richmond (2-0) did precisely that against the Rangers (6-9), holding their powerful lineup to two runs on six hits over six innings. Texas tagged Richmond for two home runs -- solo shots by Josh Hamilton and Chris Davis in the fourth and sixth innings, respectively -- but the pitcher limited the damage and ended with a career-high eight strikeouts.

"You can't say enough about how he's doing," Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay said. "He's got the stuff to get guys out, it's just a matter of the location and he was putting that curveball on those lefties in a perfect spot where they're not going to hit it. And, if they do hit it, they're going to ground out."

In the fourth inning, after allowing Hamilton's blast, Richmond loaded the bases with two outs. He proceeded to strike out Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden, escaping further harm and giving Toronto's lineup more time to pad its 2-1 lead.

"Richmond did a great job for us -- just what we needed," Gaston said. "He gave us some innings until our guys got some runs for him. I said it all spring, he gives us a chance to win. He throws strikes and that's part of it."

The Blue Jays jumped on Rangers started Kevin Millwood (1-2) with a pair of home runs in the second inning -- solo shots from Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay. In the fifth inning, Alex Rios ended a 16-game homerless drought by drilling a 1-0 offering from Millwood deep to left for a two-run blast that put the Jays ahead, 4-1.

Millwood exited after seven innings and Toronto added some insurance against reliever Jason Jennings. With two outs in the eighth inning, Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen contributed a run-scoring single to give his team a three-run advantage.

"We're finding ways to do it," Overbay said. "I mean, we didn't really hit the ball well tonight. We got some key hits. Rios, that was a big hit, and then Scott Rolen coming through with that extra run, those are key hits that we're getting right now."

With Ryan sidelined with muscle tightness in his right trapezius, left-hander Scott Downs is set to step into the closer's role for the Blue Jays for the time being. Gaston had planned on giving Downs the night off on Thursday, but that changed before the game.

"He said he was fine," Gaston said. "That made my day."

Ryan, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sitting on the bench in the home dugout, watched Downs set down the Rangers in order in the ninth inning to pick up his first save of the season.

Setbacks have done little to slow the Jays so far.

"Hey, get somebody else, bring them in and let's move on," Gaston said.

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