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Everyone -- even your aunt in Thunder Bay -- knows by now that the Jays are playing not the Cubs but the Sosa-less Cubs this weekend. Still, this weekend should be a heck of a challenge for the Jays, whose insanely great offence has struggled only against this season's elite starters...two of whom will be on the mound tonight and tomorrow afternoon. And unlike a couple of AL East rivals I could mention, excellent starting is usually followed by a lights-out performance by the Cubs bullpen, which has been stellar this year. It's a classic case of "irresistible force meets...other irresistible force." I know, it doesn't quite work...

Are the Cubs unbeatable? No, because Chicago doesn't have a lot of offensive depth or power, so the onus will be on Esco, Davis and Lidle to go right after their hitters. Yeah, I'm lookin' right at you, Dougie! With the tragic disappearance of Mark Bellhorn, the Cubs' two power sources have been replaced in the lineup by the likes of Troy O'Leary and the un-cryogenically-frozen Tom Goodwin. Surprisingly, though the much-dissed acquisitions of Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek have worked out very well for the Cubbies, as both veterans came to the club psychologically prepared to play a reduced role -- and have performed admirably when used. They'll both likely start all three games this weekend, with Hee Seop Choi on the DL.

I wonder if Alex Gonzalez can still attract those pre-strikeout screams of adulation from the Seventeen set.

On to the Advance Scout!
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The Jays are back in the wild, wooly world of the DH, and couldn't be happier. Not only that, but they face a struggling team that isn't really firing on any cylinder, unless Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez count as cylinders. But as the Ottoman Empire learned when they laid siege to Vienna, overconfidence can be costly.

Having said that...the Pirates seem to be a great matchup for Roy Halladay, with their paucity of pop. The starters set to face the Jays don't issue walks, but are very hittable and could be feasted on this week. Mike Williams is the one and only Pittsburgh hurler the Jays don't want to face this week.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Apologies for the belated Advance Scout entry. As Coach so ably predicted, the Jays' bats returned with a vengeance in Friday night's opener at Great American Ball Park. Toronto's hitting can only be contained by an excellent starter, and at least in the rotation, Cincinnati has nothing resembling an excellent starter.

The Reds can mash, especially at home, and can catch the ball. But a weak-hitting bottom of the order and dreadful pitching except for the three relievers at the back end of the bullpen make for a sub-.500 club. Much has been written of how lucky they've seemed to be, given the respectability of their record relative to their awful run differential; the Jays would do well to jump on Dempster and Haynes early to avoid the late-inning magic that Cincinnati's been able to conjure up this season with surprising regularity.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Who would have guessed that the Jays would begin interleague play with a better record than the St. Louis Cardinals?

Make no mistake -- the Cardinals remain an extraordinarily gifted and dangerous team. But they haven't yet amounted to the sum of their parts, even factoring for their various injuries. Although several of their hitters are having outstanding seasons, the Cards have been prone to collective off-days at the plate. Similarly, although the Cards are loaded with talented gloves, their play in the field has been spotty at inopportune times. And although they've had simply outstanding seasons from Matt Morris and Woody Williams, the back ends of their rotation and bullpen have been tragically Bostonesque. If the Jays can get to the St. Louis bullpen early, they will win games this series, period.

This will be a good challenge for the Jays' dominant hitting attack, who unfortunately draw both of the Redbirds' star pitchers in the series after a month of toying with AL starters not named Garland, Loaiza or (grr) Kennedy. The Jays may be forced to execute in more small-ball situations than to which they're accustomed, but given the roster-wide offensive production of late, just think of the bench they'll have most nights for pinch-hitting!

The Jays and Cardinals have obviously never met in meaningful games, but they do certainly have a bit of a spring training local rivalry. And there's always a great baseball atmosphere at Busch, so the Jays should be up for the series...

On to the Advance Scout!
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OK, since I've got the conch, here's my two cents on the trade that brought BK to Boston and turned Bank One Ballpark into Shea Stadium. (insert groan) Sadly for the Jays, I agree that it's a good trade for Theo.

We shouldn't go overboard in bashing Hillenbrand. For a third baseman, the Hillenbrand of 2002 was a considerably valuable offensive player in a lineup where others get on base regularly. Plus, he offered tremendous durability and some nice positional flexibility that could permit Bill Mueller, instead of Damian Jackson, to spell Todd Walker at second against lefties.

Sabermetric hardliners will always call him an evil, evil man for his lack of plate discipline. But I think an overlooked problem with Hillenbrand is that for a supposed "contact freak," admired by anti-sabermetric types, he strikes out an awful lot: 95 last year. At third, he was error-prone and his defence wasn't great otherwise. Most importantly, his 10-homer pace has squelched any hopes that his power (and Fenway-friendliness) would take off after his respectable 18 dingers last season. All in all, the Red Sox were dealing from a position of strength -- with Freddy Sanchez showing that he's ready (or close to it), and the rest of the infield hitting up a storm lately, Hillenbrand was expendable. Moreover, of all their potential trading partners, Arizona was most dealing from a position of weakness.

Meanwhile, I don't know what Boston's going to try to with their bullpen usage (given their asphyxiating media coverage), but BK seems to be an optimal candidate for the Bill James "Ace Reliever" theorem. The Sox could use his devastating stuff when they need it, and not only should he be effective in key situations, but he can occasionally avoid his residual ninth-inning phobia. (From his public statements, my sense is that it still exists.) One of the criticisms of the non-traditional bullpen deals with the sports psychology of relievers and their "roles"; a variable, high-leverage use of Kim, however, strikes me as better for his psyche in particular.

Oh, yeah -- the series! Huge weekend for the Jays, who should have some decent crowds. Fossum and Wakefield have been struggling, so the Jays should be able to snap out of their offensive mini-funk. Lurch seems to be getting it together, but Doug Davis had better be way sharper tonight against the hard-hitting Boston club than he was against the pressing Yankees on Sunday. I'm finally coming home for the weekend, and I've got tickets for Sunday -- on the off-, off-chance Pedro's up for it, it could be a classic. Use your bench bats, Mr. Tosca!

On to the Advance Scout!
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Chicago's American League entry remains a difficult bunch to figure out. Mark Buehrle struggles, while Esteban Loaiza shines; the team's supposed weakness -- pitching -- has been decent but the team's alleged strength -- hitting -- has been utterly horrid all season. Any hopes the S.S. South Side had been righted after taking two of three from the Jays were dashed by embarrassingly dropping two of three at home to the Tigers.

While the Jays are inspiring exuberance from the local fans and media, the Sox are shrouded in pessimism as they set out for a long road trip. The Chicago Sun-Times resident Griff, Jay Mariotti, has the following to say in today's paper: "Only the blind, deaf and dumb still have any faith in this pile of pulp ... When they finally return home, the Sox will be so far behind the Minnesota Twins they'll need a compass, map and Sherpa guide to find them."

Chicago does, however, have some good pitching matchups this series, and the Colon-Halladay duel tomorrow night should not only be entertaining but a good bellwether as to what extent Doc has gotten his groove back.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Well, the Jays are one game back of Coach's optimistic 24-23 prediction for the Jays' "midterm exam" in the Bronx this weekend. I think we'll let Toronto sit for the test. After the opening-week humiliation and dropping three of four in New York later in April, the Jays could be proud to earn a split in this four-gamer.

They have an opportunity to do so, with some Yankees seriously hurt and others playing through pain. After creating an "aura of invincibility" among even the more staid baseball scribes with their 18-3 start, the Bombers are just 11-14 since then. The Yankees have not been stellar in the field lately and feature several slumping hitters (gory details below). Kind of ominous deja vu, isn't it, after Konerko and Lee woke up this week in Chicago?

Forecast is for dreary weather here in the Apple, save for Sunday. I'll be checking out Wells-Lidle on Saturday afternoon from the upper deck, and will report back to the ol' Box.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Chicago's a team in trouble, no doubt about it. Other than our cutter-enhanced old friend, Esteban Loaiza, the White Sox have been getting pretty spotty starting pitching, especially from Mark Buehrle. The Jays duck Esteban and his improbably league-leading ERA of 1.99 this series.

But their pitching problems pale (or Pale, as in Hose) in comparison to their defensive woes. Dodgy fielding, erratic throws and a ton of wild pitches -- especially with promising but green Miguel Olivo behind the plate -- have been costing the White Sox close games, such as on Saturday and Sunday.

And even those difficulties are nothing compared with Chicago's wildly underachieving lineup at the bat. So many Sox are playing so far under their expected level of play that the axe fell on Gary Ward after yesterday's loss in Minnesota. Greg Walker makes his hitting-coach debut tonight at Ex-Comiskey Park.

The message has been sent to Konerko, Thomas, Ordonez et al., and the Jays can't expect a cakewalk this week. A win tonight would set a good tone for the series for our .500 boys, but a breakout game for Chisox hitters might wake up their bats that won't stay slumbering forever. Who would have ever guessed that as of May 19, the White Sox would only be able to count on sending Esteban Loaiza to the All-Star Game in front of their home fans in July?

On to the Advance Scout!
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Needless to say, Kansas City hasn't kept up their furious pace with which they went into their April series in Toronto. But this week's split of a four-game set at the Metrodome is perfectly respectable for this young club -- a team that still holds a division lead over squads in Minnesota and Chicago, both of whom have taken longer than anticipated to find their groove.

This series has two interesting pitching matchups: Halladay-Affeldt on Saturday, and Kelvim's return, on Sunday. The Royals' entire pitching staff has struggled over the last three weeks; this weekend, the onus will fall on the Jays' pockmarked staff to cut out their frustrating habit of losing games in which their lineup gives them five (or more!) runs of support.

Bill James thinks they're fluky, and the Royals may well come crashing down to earth when they hit the West Coast, starting Monday. Hopefully the Jays can kick-start their descent a bit early this weekend with another solid showing on the road. But oh, all those games against Cleveland and Detroit...the Royals will likely still be at least relevant after the All-Star break, and that's an accomplishment. Maybe Tony Pena's proving the Mike Scioscia Hypothesis true: crafty, annoying ex-catchers make good managers in the clubhouse.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Oh, those pesky Devil Rays.

Tampa has a banged-up lineup that should be contained by the Jays' starters this week -- although all bets are off in Joe Kennedy starts, as far as the Jays are concerned. The cross-body-throwing lefty has been pure Kryptonite to the Blue Jays since he entered the league.

As for the rest of Tampa Bay's pitching staff, the "Tigers Conundrum" applies: Does a weekend against the Tigers soften up a pitching staff before a series against actual big-league hitters, or does it inject a little confidence into the rotation that will help them out against a squad like the Jays? Time will tell.

Though it's far from a foregone conclusion, a sweep will position the Jays above .500 and might start a little buzz around the GTA and the baseball world. Let's hope the Jays keep up their league-leading approach at the dish...

On to the Advance Scout!
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After last weekend's pasting by the Jays, the Halos got well this week -- thanks to home cookin' and a visit by the Tribe. The Angels are still vulnerable, especially if the Jays can give Aaron Sele a rude re-introduction to Major League Baseball. Of course, the Jays definitely do not want to have to face the back end of Anaheim's bullpen down more than one run.

For those of us from outside the GTA, this is another series in which MLB.TV has elected not to show any of the Jays' games. Bah, humbug.

On to the Advance Scout!
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A hearty thanks is in order for John Gizzi, who came through with an Advance Scout pinch-hitting appearance that would have made even Rance Mulliniks proud. Since Gitz ratted me out, I might as well admit to being in Las Vegas for the entire Jays winning streak. For many, many reasons, as much as I support "taking one for the team," I should let you know now that I would not be amenable to suggestions that I head back to Sin City until the Jays lose. On the bright side, our entire party did manage to avoid ill-advised marriages.

So the Jays have turned things around with pitching and defence. It should be all too fresh in the Jay hurlers' minds, though, that the Rangers lineup can put up a lot of crooked numbers (sometimes, sadly, even with a straight number preceding it). The formula for beating Texas has been simple: Keep the ball in the park, and be patient with their pitching. It's just a matter of executing the formula against A-Rod, Palmeiro, Blalock, and the rejuvenated Gonzalez and Everett.

At least the Jays snapped their multi-year, 10-game losing streak against Texas last Thursday. The most notable memory from the Metroplex for Jays fans, I think, is Nolan Ryan's last no-hitter on a muggy night at Arlington Stadium. I think Joe Carter's "TOROTNO" jersey might also have been infamously donned in Texas.

Doc has his work cut out for him as he tries to cut back his gopher balls. Blow in, sweet winds of Texas. Blow in.

On to the Advance Scout!
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As you can see, I am filling in for Mike D this weekend. While I can't be expected to be as comprehensive and entertaining as Mike, I will do my best. And isn't that the best any of us can do? Our very best? I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Mr. Denysyzn is surrounded by other denizens: he's spending the weekend in Las Vegas. May his return to New York be accompanied with extra currency, treasured memories, and a minimum number of new brides.

Now, to the upcoming series. With the Blue Jays pitching staff going through a Feng Shui of sorts, another good-hitting team, the Anaheim Angels, comes to Toronto. Those pesky Angels, the anti-poster boys for sabermetrics, nonetheless work the count effectively, put the ball in play, occasionally juice one over the wall or, if they don't, run the bases hard. In short, they make you play. This is not a good sign for the Jays, who appear as vulnerable to teams keeping the ball in the park as they are to teams hitting it over the fence. The good news is that Carlos Tosca won't be around to tinker with the bullpen, at least for the first two games. The skipper will miss Friday and Saturday's adventures to attend his daughter's graduation from the University of Florida; first-base coach John Gibbons will take over as manager. Here's hoping Tosca doesn't bring a cell phone with him.

This series will mark the debut of Doug Davis in a Blue Jay uniform, as well as the semi-return of Kelvim Escobar to the rotation. In what seems like a move more appropriate in Dunedin in March, the Jays plan to start Davis Saturday then bring in Escobar to relieve him. One can only hope the Jays are well ahead, because Escobar is allowing base runners at a rate that makes Roy Halladay, circa 2000, look like a Hall-of-Famer. New closer Cliff Politte (I love the sound of that, and not just because I have him in my keeper AL-only fantasy league) has worked two days in a row; if he's needed tonight, it will be interesting to see who gets the call Saturday if there is a save situation.

In the meantime, Anaheim is missing some ingredients of last year's World Series run: Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele, and Darin Erstad are on the DL, and, while game seven winner John Lackey is healthy, it is hard to tell if he has actually been pitching or if opposing teams are merely whacking balls off a tee while Lackey eats some sushi or takes a ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean at nearby Disneyland. Nonetheless, and whether or not they were a fluke last year, the Angels are an exciting team to watch.

On to the advance scout!
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For a staff that's been far too hittable this season, the wrong opponent is coming into town. Having said that, they're facing a Texas staff that's been, in some ways, even worse (though against very tough opposing lineups). The next three nights may see a pitcher's duel, but I sure wouldn't bet on it.

Of course, the significance of this series goes beyond a mere matchup between two hard-hitting, soft-tossing clubs. Loonie Day or no Loonie Day, the Jays will have a packed house tonight. One of the biggest misconceptions about the Jays, particularly outside the GTA, is that the Jays have become irrelevant to the city of Toronto.

In 2001, even if there were 18,000 at the games, the FAN switchboard lit up with outrage when Gordo waived Tony Batista. Fans care, but we have learned that fans will respond to winning and winning only. There are still an awful lot of people in Toronto that honestly can't understand why the Yankees always get the Mussinas and the Jays settle for the Sturtzes. To them, baseball is a sport where Toronto can win a title and lead the league in payroll, because it really didn't happen too long ago.

Jays fans want to love the team again. They really do. But whenever the Jays have had an opportunity to recapture the city since 1993, the Jays have turned in poor performances. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, the Jays were at least in an interesting situation in August and early September -- only to get hammered in front of large walk-up crowds by the likes of Boston and Oakland. In 1997, the Dome was rocking on Canada Day against the Expos -- but the Jays allowed Jeff Juden (!) to outduel the Rocket.

This year, Opening Day offered another opportunity to impress a large crowd and sell future tickets, which was again missed. Spotlight's on, Jays. Let's turn this season -- and, at the risk of undue hyperbole, the image of this franchise around tonight.

Oh, and two more things: First, it seems a little silly for a Jays fan living in New York City to be the Advance Scout for the Rangers when Batter's Box's very own Mick Doherty resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Mick, please feel free to be the ombudsperson for today's column: We'd all appreciate your insights and corrections.

Second, thanks to all of you who have offered constructive and helpful suggestions for the Advance Scout column. Please feel free to post with further ideas for improvement. And I'd also like to thank the likes of Mike Moffatt, Rodent, Snellville Jones and several other BB regulars for their kind words of encouragement.

On to the Advance Scout!
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Or should I say, "The Secret Super-Agents Who Have Abducted, And Are Posing As, The Royals?"

In all seriousness, KC has been feasting on bad and/or slumping teams en route to their wholly unforeseeable 16-3 start. They've been pitching well, fielding well and taking good approaches to at-bats, but they've also been the beneficiaries of errors and startling mental breakdowns by opponent after opponent. (Hello, Blue Jays...) It'll be interesting to see how the brimming-with-confidence Royals fare against the big boys. Having said that, they still have an awful lot of games against Detroit and Cleveland on the schedule..

We all "know" that they're not as good as their record, but consider this: Of all the teams to start 16-3 since 1940, all have made the playoffs except the '87 Brewers, who went on a 12-game losing streak in May. Even those Brewers, however, won 91 games.

Not only would 91 wins be an absolutely superlative achievement for Allard Baird and Tony Pena, but that would mean that the state of Missouri would, at the very least, see meaningful AL baseball for the first time in a long, long time. Remember, no playoffs since Sundberg...But who are we kidding? The '03 Kansas City Royals can't win 90, right? Right???

On to the Advance Scout!
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