The Blue Jays had to win 11 consecutive games and 12 out of the last 14 just to get into the American League East conversation again, but now they are the talk of the town, the talk of their country. They are baseball’s hottest team, and they have thrust themselves back into the discussion in the division and beyond.
So their four-game series vs. the Red Sox starting Thursday night is indeed meaningful.
The Jays come to town with a repaired Jose Reyes, who spent more than two months on the disabled list with a severely sprained ankle. They have their pitching back in order, with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey hurling a two-hitter in a 3-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday afternoon. Veteran Mark Buehrle keeps improving, and Josh Johnson, once one of the best pitchers in the National League and a big part of the Jays’ trade with the Marlins, is healthy and throwing well again.
They have their potent lineup, with first baseman Adam Lind having a great season and the power boys — Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista — doing their thing.
Their bullpen has been excellent, so the team the Red Sox will face, against whom they own a 5-4 advantage this season, will have to contend with all the good things that made the Jays the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the division.
The major bullet points for this series are these:
■ The Red Sox enter the series with a brand new closer in Koji Uehara. The 38-year-old veteran struck out two and retired the Rockies in order Wednesday afternoon to preserve a 5-3 win for John Lackey.
The one weak link on this Red Sox team has been closer. Joel Hanrahan had the job and was ineffective and lost it to Andrew Bailey, who the lost it back to Hanrahan. Hanrahan then got hurt, and had season-ending Tommy John surgery. In the interim, when Hanrahan and Bailey were both on the disabled list, Junichi Tazawa and Uehara had the role for a spell. But when Bailey returned he got his job back, only to lose it because of ineffectiveness.
If Uehara is now a mainstay and gives manager John Farrell peace of mind, the Red Sox will be able to at least put aside the worry of who is closing games. While the Red Sox worry about workload with Uehara, he could not care less about it. He’s nearing the end of his career and all he wants to do is pitch.
His enthusiasm is infectious.
“He has a lot of energy,” David Ortiz said. “Everybody loves the way he plays the game. He has a lot of fun and he’s nasty, man. This was one game, one save, but I’ll tell you what, if he can keep doing this that’s one less thing we don’t have to worry about around here. We’ve had trouble with that position, but everybody is rooting for Koji.”
Uehara said he’s not approaching the closer role any differently than if he was pitching in the seventh or eighth.
“The pressure, the stress level, is the same wherever I pitch,” he said. “The only goal that I have is to continue to pitch in the majors. I’m old. So I don’t have to think about the future so I just concentrate on what’s in front of me. I understand the team is concerned about workload, but I can go back to back.”
He said about the pressure of the job, “I’m just enjoying it.”
Pitching coach Juan Nieves has fewer qualms about Uehara’s workload than he did at the start of the season.
“I think he’s such an efficient pitcher,” Nieves said. “Today,  pitches. I remember there were times in spring training when he threw seven pitches and we had to find extra work for him. In spring training, everybody’s swinging. So we almost were looking for spots to elongate his outings. So he threw bullpens in between appearances in spring training because of how efficient he is in the strike zone.”
■ Jon Lester. The Red Sox need Lester to go back to being the guy who started 6-0 and pitched lights out in tandem with Clay Buchholz. It doesn’t appear Buchholz will be back any time soon, so Lester has to step it up, much like Lackey has.
Over his last seven starts, Lester, who opposes Chien-Ming Wang Thursday night, has a 7.30 ERA. That’s just not acceptable for the co-ace of a staff, especially now. Since their 20-8 start the Red Sox are 27-25. Thursday is the midpoint of the season and the Red Sox have played just slightly over .500 ball since Lester/Buchholz began to struggle/got hurt.
■ Allen Webster. The Red Sox will give the rookie another chance, a second straight start (Friday night) just to see if building continuity on the major league roster makes a difference. Everyone has raved about Webster’s stuff, his great changeup, and his high-velocity fastball that has great movement. Yet he hasn’t been able to win with that velocity; he’s 0-2 with an 11.25 ERA.
The Red Sox brass had a long conversation about Webster this week. Was it best to send him back down and let him develop, or can he learn from the mistakes he’s made in the majors and get better as a result of that learning curve? It appears this will be Webster’s last chance to find out. He pitched well against the Blue Jays in spring training, so we’ll see if there’s any carryover. He will be facing a very challenging lineup. Make a mistake and leave a ball up in the zone against this team and you’re liable to give up some tape-measure homers.
■ Are the Blue Jays ready to kick the first-place team around in their own ballpark?
“I always knew they would rebound,” Ortiz said. “There’s too much talent on that team. You had guys hurt and maybe they weren’t together, but I tell you what, that team has some great players, great hitters who can hit the ball a long, long way. They’re tough and we know they’re tough. They’re right back in the race, so we’d better have our best game out there to beat them.”
Wang is an interesting story. In three starts he’s 1-0 with a 2.18 ERA. He was let loose by the Yankees after having a successful comeback at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Yankees didn’t feel Wang was pitching as well as his numbers, but the two-time 19-game winner for New York certainly has pitched well his last two times out for Toronto.
After allowing five runs in 7⅓ innings in his first start at the White Sox, he allowed no runs in seven innings at Texas and one run in 6⅓ against Baltimore. He always had the hard sinker, and while it’s not as good as it used to be after an injury-plagued career, Wang has surprised.
“We’re in first place and they’re in last place, but we know what they’ve done to get back into the race,” Sox outfielder Shane Victorino said. “We’re not going to talk about how good we are, we just have to go out and show it. It’s a big AL East series and we have to go out there and play our best baseball in our home park.”