Opposite dugout: Blue Jays welcome O’s with chance to close gap on first

blue-jays-logo.jpgManager: John Gibbons, second year
Record: 60-53
Last 10 games: 6-4
Who to watch: RF Jose Bautista (.293/.412/.515, 21 doubles, 21 HR, 64 RBIs, 69 R); LF Melky Cabrera (.309/.359/.475, 28 doubles, 14 HR, 55 RBIs, 70 R); 3B Juan Francisco (.241/.312/.510, 13 doubles, 16 HR, 42 RBIs); LHP Mark Buehrle (11-7, 3.11 ERA, 1.33 WHIP)
Season series vs. O’s: 5-5, 48 runs scored, 38 runs allowed

Pitching probables
Aug. 5: Mark Buehrle vs. Bud Norris, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Aug. 6: Drew Hutchison vs. Wei-Yin Chen, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Aug. 7: J.A. Happ vs. Miguel Gonzalez, 7 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
The Orioles have a chance to turn a comfortable division lead into a huge one the next few days with a trip north of the border to face the suddenly struggling second-place Blue Jays.

Baltimore holds a four-game edge on the Jays, so no matter what happens the next three days, it will come out of the series in first. It’s just a matter of whether that lead is one game, three games, five games or seven games when it’s all said and done.

Toronto had been as hot as could be, winning six in a row, nine of 10 and 11 of 13 before the Astros slowed the club down over the weekend. The Blue Jays have now lost three in a row heading into a series that could put a serious dent in their American League East title hopes.

Toronto had been scoring at a remarkable clip during its surge, being held to fewer than four runs only once while averaging 6.2 per contest (80 total) over the 13 games. Things changed when the offense cooled off, as the Jays have been held to four total runs over their last three games.

The Blue Jays still take one of baseball’s best lineups into the series - even without leading home-run hitter Edwin Encarnacion (26 homers, 70 RBIs), designated hitter Adam Lind (.878 OPS) and infielder Brett Lawrie (.718 OPS). They rank first in the majors with 134 homers, third with 516 runs, third with a .756 OPS and fourth with a .263 average.

So the Orioles’ pitching staff will have to be up for a challenge if it wants to add to its division lead.

Right fielder Jose Bautista leads the Jays’ healthy bats with a .926 OPS, 21 doubles, 21 homers and 69 RBIs. He has emerged from a bit of a slump to bat .340 with four doubles, four homers and 10 RBIs in his last 13 games.

Left fielder Melky Cabrera has continued his strong season, posting an .834 OPS, 28 doubles, 14 homers and 59 RBIs. Like Bautista, he has been pretty productive lately. Before being held hitless Sunday, Cabrera batted .388 with seven doubles, three homers and 14 RBIs in 17 games.

Former Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold has also hit well in his brief time with the Jays, posting a 1.042 OPS, three doubles, two homers and six RBIs in eight games sandwiched around another disabled list stint.

Pitching-wise, even during its hot stretch, Toronto’s pitching was only so-so. The Blue Jays rank 11th in the AL with a 4.09 team ERA and 4.31 bullpen ERA, while standing ninth with a 3.98 rotation ERA. The Jays allow more baserunners than any team in the AL East.

On top of that, the Orioles have a favorable rotation draw for the next three games. Baltimore faces only one of the Jays’ top three starters with right-handers Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey set to miss the series.

The Jays do pitch rotation leader Mark Buehrle (11-7, 3.11 ERA) tonight against Bud Norris. The veteran southpaw is coming off his best start in a month, where he held Boston to one run in 6 2/3 innings on July 30. It was his first win since June 7.

Buehrle has fallen off since a remarkable start to the year where he went 10-2 with a 2.04 ERA in his first 13 outings. In the nine starts since, he’s 1-5 with a 4.86 ERA.

Right-hander Drew Hutchison faces Wei-Yin Chen in the second game, also looking to reverse a negative trend. Hutchison is 7-9 with a 4.62 ERA overall this year, but he has pitched to a 9.17 ERA over his last four starts.

Left-hander J.A. Happ is easily the hottest starter the Orioles will face in the series, as he has a 1.47 ERA over his last three starts (three earned runs in 18 1/3 innings). That has improved his season totals to 8-5 with a 4.25 ERA. Happ will take on Miguel Gonzalez in Thursday’s series finale.

It hasn’t helped that the bullpen is no longer a strength with closer Casey Janssen (2.86 ERA) and right-hander Todd Redmond (2.07 ERA) the only relievers with an ERA under 3.00 in at least 30 appearances. The Jays have blown 14 saves this season.

Even with unimpressive pitching, the Blue Jays’ deep and powerful lineup has been enough to keep the team in the AL East race all season and should prove to be a difficult out for the Orioles’ pitching staff.

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