TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays emerged from a challenging opening week looking like the most complete team they've been in years, one that resembles a legitimate contender in the American League East.
While it's never a good idea to read too much into two series, Sunday afternoon's 7-4 victory completed a three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox and put an exclamation mark on an impressive stretch of baseball.
"To start off that way, where we're playing sound defensively, pitching well and to see the bats come in and take advantage of chances, it's nice to see early on," said ace Roy Halladay, who threw eight strong innings. "Most importantly, guys have just come up big."
The Blue Jays were a sound, opportunistic and well-rounded group in opening the season 4-2. A mix of tough starting pitching, outstanding relief work from the bullpen, solid defence and a multi-faceted offence did in the road-weary Red Sox (3-4), who returned to Boston for the first time this season after an 18-day, four-city, three-country road trip.
And despite dropping two of three to the Yankees in New York to open things up, the Blue Jays could easily have ended up with a sweep there, too.
"For us to be consistent all year, we're going to have to hunker down and play well in all facets of the game," said outfielder Vernon Wells, who ripped a two-run shot in the fourth. "If we're able to do that and string this along for a while, we'll give ourselves a chance."
The key for them now is to maintain the same level of intensity against the bottom-feeders coming up on their schedule. They host Oakland for three starting Tuesday, then hit the road for three with Texas and a pair in Baltimore.
"Especially after two big series with tougher teams, sometimes there's that tendency to take things for granted," said Halladay. "We've got to make sure we don't do that."
Added Wells: "That's always been our problem. Now I think the team's focus is a little different, everybody knows what needs to be done."
A crowd of 30,114 was treated to some terrific pitching Sunday, as Halladay (1-1) and Josh Beckett (0-1), making his season debut after a lower back strain during spring training set him back, went mano-a-mano in a duel of aces.
Beckett was in fine form, piling up six strikeouts, but the Blue Jays worked the playoff hero hard and broke through in the fifth.
The game was tied 2-2 when Aaron Hill picked up a two-out single. Alex Rios and Wells then earned walks to load the bases and send Beckett packing after 92 pitches. Manny Delcarmen came on and Thomas crushed his first pitch to left-centre for the 11th grand slam and 515th home run of his career.
"That was arguably the two best pitchers in the league going at it out there today," said Jays manager John Gibbons. "If you can get into each team's middle relief, that's where you make your money."
With Halladay on the mound, it was all over after that.
The ace right-hander allowed four runs on eight hits, including inning-opening solo shots to Jacoby Ellsbury in the third, Jason Varitek in the fifth and J.D. Drew in the seventh. A fourth run against him scored in the eighth, when Kevin Youkilis reached third after John McDonald dropped his popper after a scary collision in centre with Wells, and scored on David Ortiz's single.
McDonald was winded and Wells' head was sore but both were otherwise fine.
"I think we both called it at the exact same time," said McDonald.
"It's the first time it's ever happened to me," said Wells. "Luckily no one came up too sore afterward."
Jeremy Accardo pitched the ninth for his third save.
Wells' two-run shot off Beckett, on a 2-2 curve, came in the fourth and gave the Blue Jays a 2-1 lead. After Varitek's blast in the fifth tied it, Thomas's big poke in the bottom of the inning settled matters in the Blue Jays' sixth straight win over Boston in Toronto, a franchise best.
"I don't think (the division) will be decided us against Boston, us against the Yankees, it's going to be (against) the rest of the teams," said Thomas. "We've got to keep the same level of adrenaline flowing against Oakland, Texas, the teams we're about to play now."
Hill added an RBI double in the sixth.
McDonald, in the field for the first time this season, made several jaw-dropping defensive plays, including one on Dustin Pedroia in the eighth, when he sprawled to knock down a ball up the middle, picked it up and spun off the ground to throw the runner out.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, made four errors, including three by shortstop Julio Lugo. They also made two errors in Saturday's 10-2 loss,, making for a totally miserable weekend.
They have a day off Monday before opening a six-game homestand against Detroit and the Yankees.
"It's probably the best thing for us right now," said Youkilis. "A lot of us are tired, we're ready to go home. All these different countries, different currencies, I'm kind of sick of it."
Notes: The Red Sox activated Beckett from the 15-day DL before the game and designated reliever Kyle Snyder for assignment. ... Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan threw a nine-pitch inning Saturday for single-A Dunedin and reported feeling as good as he has since his elbow surgery last May. He's slated to pitch again Monday. "He feels strong," said Gibbons. ... Jays 3B Scott Rolen is scheduled to have the pins removed from his surgically-repaired broken right middle finger Monday. He's been staying in shape by hitting with one hand off a tee and fielding grounders. ... Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon threw out the ceremonial first pitch.