Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Blue Jays take on Brewers in battle of first place teams

The Toronto Blue Jays are (still) in first place.

After losing three games in a row to the Chicago White Sox, who dominated the Blue Jays with three straight lefty starters, it doesn’t always seem like it but the Jays remain in very good shape. Sure, the Baltimore Orioles have crept within one game of the division lead after their 7-1 win over the Texas Rangers yesterday but, with a record of six game above .500, the Jays are still in the driver’s seat in the American League East.

It seems crazy but 84 or 85 wins might clinch what has been traditionally been baseball’s most difficult division. The Blue Jays still have a lot of work to do but playing .500 ball the rest of the way might be enough to at least get a sniff of the ALDS.

That’s not to say there aren’t concerns – the white hot offense has slowed to a near crawl while holes remain in the infield and the rotation remains uncomfortably thin – but even if they don’t reach the pinnacle they were playing at in May when they were beating up on the best teams in baseball, as long as the wheels don’t completely fall off the Jays have already done enough to make the playoffs a legitimate possibility.

However they will be in tough with this next two-game series against the NL leading Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers are led by Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, who have been two of the best players in MLB this season. Gomez was shaken up after he collided with Ryan Braun on Saturday but is expected to return today, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Sentinel Journal. Jean Segura also Saturday’s and is questionable for the series in Toronto with quad cramps per the same report.

According to Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet, Jose Bautista is confident he’ll return to the starting lineup and says he’s “close to 100%”. Bautista injured his hamstring on a bunt attempt nine days ago but was able to pinch hit on Sunday against Chicago (he grounded out). If Bautista is able to return it would be a huge boost for the Blue Jays, who went 3-4 with him out of the lineup and desperately missed him against the southpaw Sox.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Game 1: Drew Hutchison (5-6, 4.00 ERA) vs. Marco Estrada (7-4, 5.06 ERA)

Hutchison is likely looking forward to seeing a team other than the New York Yankees. He’s given up 14 earned runs in 13.2 innings this season to the Bronx Bombers including four runs in each of his last two starts. His last appearance wasn’t bad as one poor inning undid an otherwise solid effort and he struck out the final three batters he faced. I expect Hutch to turn it around with a good start to lead the Blue Jays off in July.

After a strong start to the season, Estrada’s ERA has now ballooned to over five. He’s given up 24 home runs, most in the National League and has been worth -0.8 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs. However he allowed only two hits and two earned in his last start, walking four batters in six and one-third innings.

Game 2: J.A. Happ (7-4, 4.29 ERA) vs. Wily Peralta (9-5, 3.20 ERA)

Happ has done just enough to keep his job in the rotation and was simply brilliant his last time out, striking out eight over seven and two-thirds scoreless frames. The problem has been consistency – he has yet to put together back-to-back solid starts and has basically alternated between good and bad outings. His peripherals haven’t been great but the key for Happ will be avoiding a blow up like his second most recent start in Cincinnati, where he allowed seven earned runs in just four innings.

Peralta has been having a breakthrough season of sorts and in sixteen starts has been worth to nearly a full win above replacement according to FanGraphs. The former Top 100 prospect throws a hard fastball and sinker in the mid-90′s with his primary off-speed pitch being a slider/curve with good tilt. At 6’1, 245 lbs he’s a big body and should keep the Blue Jays’ hitters hands full all game.

Happy Canada Day!

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