TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays did their best to brush aside talk of a measuring stick series coming up against the Boston Red Sox, consenting only to use the banal adjective "big" to describe the three-game set they open Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
But with more than a quarter of the season behind them and a 3 1-2 game lead atop the American League East, there is meaning to the games they are playing now and a growing belief there will be more on the line in the games to come.
"Right now we're believing in each other and it's someone different every night, it makes it exciting that way," said first baseman Kevin Millar, who homered in a 3-2 win Monday afternoon that capped a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox.
"We've had some great pitching from our young pitchers, timely hitting and that's what makes this club be where it's at right now. It's a special group and you get believing in the right direction, everybody's pulling on the same rope and good things can happen."
That's exactly what's going on for the Blue Jays (27-14) right now, as their latest victory showed.
On track for an easy win through seven thanks to seven shutout innings from rookie starter Scott Richmond of North Vancouver, B.C., they hit a bump on the road when Jesse Carlson coughed the advantage up in the eighth on a two-run shot by Jim Thome, the 548th homer of his career to tie Mike Schmidt for 13th all-time.
That hardly derailed them, as Jose Bautista opened the frame's bottom half with a walk against Octavio Dotel (1-1), who hadn't allowed a run in 14 previous appearances, moved to second on Marco Scutaro's sacrifice bunt, stole third and trotted in on Alex Rios' triple into the gap, igniting the crowd of 24,206.
Scott Downs came on for the ninth and collected his fifth save, capping a 5-2 homestand ahead of a nine-game road trip that starts with their first meeting of the season against Boston and follows with three-game sets in Atlanta and Baltimore.
"It's great for us to have a winning streak like this," said Bautista. "Everything is going in a good way, everybody is pitching good, everybody is hitting good, we just need to keep it going."
The Blue Jays have so far done a fine job of beating up on the teams they should - the White Sox (15-22) dropped their season-high fifth in a row and have lost their last 10 games in Toronto - but are relatively untested against their powerful divisional rivals.
They went 1-2 against the New York Yankees last week and won't face the Tampa Bay Rays until the end of June. The Boston series, while by no means the be-all, end-all, offers at least some indication of how they stack up against the cream of the crop.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else (Tuesday), except maybe the best golf course in the world," quipped manager Cito Gaston. "Other than that, this is what it's all about."
The Blue Jays arrive in Boston with their bullpen in relatively good shape thanks to Richmond, who bounced back after giving up a combined 10 runs in his previous two starts to allow just five hits and a walk while striking out seven.
He was in line for his fifth win of the season until Carlson (1-2) coughed it up, but was thrilled nonetheless after regaining command of his fastball to cut up the White Sox.
"Two five spots in two second innings in a row, this is a mental game and it can take a toll on you," said Richmond. "I didn't try to change too much, same game-plan, stick to my strengths and battle through it. I was able to do that."
The Blue Jays may need their bullpen in Boston, as rookie starters Brett Cecil and Robert Ray are scheduled to make their debuts against the hard-hitting Red Sox.
Converted reliever Brian Tallet is set to pitch the opener against Tim Wakefield.
"(Sweeping) four games at home before we go, it gets out confidence level even higher going into a hostile environment there at Fenway," said Richmond. "This team is playing so well and these guys are so loose and relaxed and it's showing on the field."
Thome's blast kept Chicago starter Clayton Richard from taking the hard-luck loss after seven strong innings of two-run ball, one earned. He gave up a solo shot to Millar in the second and a sacrifice fly to Aaron Hill, scoring Scutaro, who had reached on a three-base error.
That was all until they got to Dotel in the eighth.
"It seems like every time we come to Toronto," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, "we get our asses kicked for some reason."
Notes: Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said Scutaro would be one of his toughest players to replace since the team doesn't have any other natural leadoff hitters. Had Scutaro not been able to play, Gaston said Jose Bautista would most likely have batted leadoff. He suggested Travis Snider might have moved into the role against a righty on the mound. Shortstop John McDonald would bat ninth. ... Jays ace Roy Halladay was named AL player of the week. ... Gaston said he and hitting coach Gene Tenace spotted a mechanical issue in Snider's swing and planned to work with the struggling rookie on it. Snider is in a 1-for-8 rut with six strikeouts. "I've already talked to him about it, a little bit, Geno and I, so we'll see how it goes with him," said Gaston. ... Manager Ozzie Guillen was back with the White Sox on Monday after missing two games to attend son Ozzie Jr.'s graduation from Columbia College. Bench coach Joey Cora managed in his absence. ... Geddy Lee was in the crowd.