Blue Jays aim to finish what they started

Toronto in position to earn first postseason berth since 1993 with strong second half

Blue Jays aim to finish what they started

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' first half was a tale of two seasons, all wrapped into 96 games.

Toronto began the year with decent results, then took the baseball world by storm with an almost unprecedented run in May. It was the type of streak where everything went the Blue Jays' way, and it led to a six-game lead in the American League East on June 6.

The last time Toronto found itself in first place that late in a season was during the World Series run of 1993. It seemed like this might finally be the year the Blue Jays brought their decades-long postseason drought to an end, but suddenly everything changed.

Toronto hit a skid, and within a matter of weeks, all of the positive work was undone. The offense stopped hitting, the division lead collapsed and the Blue Jays went right back to where they started.

So how can a team look so good one week and so bad the next? Here's a look back at the storylines of the first half and a look ahead to what might come in the future.

Five things that happened

1. The early bullpen struggles
The bullpen was the Blue Jays' biggest strength in 2013, but it turned out to be the biggest weakness in April. With Casey Janssen on the disabled list, the club struggled to close out games. Sergio Santos lost his job after three blown saves and the rest of the bullpen struggled to throw strikes.

2. The month of May
The Blue Jays finished May with 21 wins to tie a franchise record for the most victories in any month. Edwin Encarnacion was one of the main reasons why, as he tied Mickey Mantle for the most home runs by an AL player in May with 17.

First-half awards
MVP: Jose Bautista
Edwin Encarnacion arguably received more attention, but Bautista has been the Blue Jays' most consistent hitter. He also provided solid defense in right field and is enjoying his best overall year since 2011.
Top starter: Mark Buehrle
Buehrle has been a notoriously slow starter throughout his career, but not this season, as he became the first Major League pitcher to reach double digits in wins.
Top rookie: Marcus Stroman
Stroman's opportunity in the starting rotation didn't come until the end of May, but his debut went well and he immediately became one of the club's most reliable pitchers.
Top reliever: Aaron Loup
Aaron Loup has overtaken Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil as the Blue Jays' most valuable middle reliever. This award could have gone to Casey Janssen, but he didn't make his season debut until the middle of May.

3. The missing offense
Toronto's offense was the best in baseball through the first two months of the season. That production dropped to 17th in June and then completely disappeared in early July. The Blue Jays started a crucial West Coast road trip by scoring six runs during a season-high five-game losing streak against the A's and the Angels.

4. The injuries
The Blue Jays saw last season derailed because of injuries, but their luck seemed to be changing this year. An injury to Brandon Morrow was the only one of significance during the first 2 1/2 months, but fortunes changed in late June. Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista went down in the same game in Cincinnati, and they were quickly followed by visits to the DL by Encarnacion and Adam Lind.

5. The starting rotation
There were plenty of question marks entering the season about the starting five, but to the surprise of almost everyone, the rotation became a strength. Toronto's starters led the AL in wins and ERA for most of the year. All this, despite the lack of a major addition during the offseason.

Five things to watch

1. The Trade Deadline
The pressure will be on general manager Alex Anthopoulos to make a significant addition before it's too late. Most of the talk earlier this year was about acquiring another starter, but it's the offense that appears to be in desperate need of some help. The most obvious fit would be acquiring either a second baseman or a third baseman to pair with Lawrie, once he returns from the DL.

2. The young starters
Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison helped solidify the Blue Jays' rotation, but how they hold up over the remainder of the season remains to be seen. Neither pitcher has pitched a full season in professional baseball, and it's almost impossible to predict where they'll go from here. Toronto will buy them an extra day of rest whenever possible, but considering the other options, both of them will need to find a way to pitch through potential fatigue.

Second-half players to watch
Jose Reyes
Reyes' season got off to a rough start when he sustained a hamstring injury during his second at-bat of the year. He's struggled to play catch-up ever since, but could be in line for a strong second half.
Drew Hutchison
Hutchison's first half was a success, but after missing all of last season because of Tommy John surgery, his workload will have to be closely monitored the rest of the way.
Brandon Morrow
Morrow was supposed to be an integral part of the rotation, but hasn't pitched since May 2 because of a torn tendon sheath in his right index finger. He could possibly return at some point in August.

3. The walking wounded
The All-Star break couldn't have come at a better time for the Blue Jays. It will provide Bautista and Jose Reyes with some much-needed rest, but Encarnacion, Lawrie and Lind will need a lot more time to recover from their injuries. Encarnacion and Lawrie should return around the beginning of August, but any setback along the way would be a crushing blow to the organization that can't afford any more bad luck.

4. The offensive approach
It's no secret the Blue Jays rely on the home run to generate most of their offense, but when the club was going well, it was also able to do the little things. It wasn't uncommon to see Bautista go the opposite way against the shift or Melky Cabrera sacrificing an at-bat to advance the runner. That trend seemed to stop in June, and when the club started to press, it reverted back to its all-or-nothing approach at the plate. That needs to change if the Blue Jays want to re-establish themselves as a legitimate threat.

5. The window of opportunity
Toronto isn't just playing for a spot in the postseason, the club is playing to keep the current core intact. The window of opportunity for this group is closing, and if the Blue Jays struggle in the second half, there could be big changes ahead. The pressure is on not only manager John Gibbons and Anthopoulos, but also the entire 25-man roster. If this team wants to stay together for another year, it needs to find a way to play meaningful baseball in September.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.