The first time the Oakland Athletics and the Toronto Blue Jays met this season, each team's situation was a lot different than it is now.
The Athletics were on a roll. When they beat the Blue Jays 8-5 on the opener of a three-game series at Rogers Centre on April 22, they increased their winning streak to six games to go to 10-7 and they were 7-0 on the road.
The Blue Jays dropped to 8-10 as they were slow out of the gate in defense of their American League East title.
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Sonny Gray was the winning pitcher that night. He has not won since, and emerges from the All-Star break at 3-8. The losing pitcher was Aaron Sanchez, who has not lost since and his 9-1 record earned him an appearance in the All-Star Game.
The Blue Jays won the next two games of the series in April and hold a 2-1 edge on the season series when they visit the A's for a three-game series on Friday.
Toronto right-hander Marcus Stroman (7-4, 4.89 ERA) will oppose Oakland right-hander Daniel Mengden (1-4, 4.54 ERA).
The Athletics left Toronto and lost 12 of their next 16 games. They lost seven of their final 10 games before the All-Star break and sit at 38-51 and are 15 games behind the first-place Texas Rangers in the American League West.
“I feel that the best of this team is yet to come,” As third baseman Danny Valencia said. “We haven't played our best baseball yet.”
The Blue Jays still stalled around the .500 mark before entering the All-Star break on an 18-7 roll and were 51-40 at the break, third in the AL East and only two games out of first place. They currently occupy a wild-card spot and are 24-20 on the road,
“Our goal is still to win the division,” Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “We feel very comfortable. I think we were seven back at the break last year and now we are just two back. We feel like we are just now starting to play our type of baseball and feel very comfortable with the position we are in and moving forward.”
Donaldson is in his second season with the Blue Jays. The Athletics traded him to Toronto before the 2015 season and watched from afar as he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
In 36 games since June 1, Donaldson has hit .376/.506/.722 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs.
This will be his second visit to his former home ballpark.
Last year when the Blue Jays visited Oakland, he was 5-for-13 with a home run, two doubles and five RBIs.
A's first baseman Yonder Alonso has batted .307/.367/.439 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 36 games since June 1.
“I'm very optimistic and I definitely feel we're not that far away,” Alonso said. “With that being said, we've got a lot of work to do.”
“I think we have a chance to be a lot better in the second half,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “We have guys back now as far as health goes. If we can stay healthy, we have the potential to have a lot better half than we had in the first half.”
While the As may be talking a good game of optimism, the Blue Jays have genuine hopes that they will continue their surge because they have accomplished what they have so far while Stroman has often struggled. They also have been without right fielder Jose Bautista, who has been out with turf toe since June 17 and is expected to return in late-July,
Stroman has shown signs of regaining the form that made him the Opening Day starter. He is 5-4 with a 5.04 ERA in his past 15 starts but has made some adjustments and the results have been encouraging. He held the Kansas City Royals to three hits, one walk and two runs in eight innings in winning on July 6.
“That was as good as you're ever going to see him,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “He had everything working, really sharp. A really good breaking ball, you name it. He had starts in which he struggled, but the last two or three have been really good. I know he feels good about that, that's what we've been looking for.”
Stroman has faced the As once in his career, in 2014 at Oakland when he allowed three hits, three walks and no runs over seven innings. He struck out seven in the no decision and Oakland won 1-0 in 12 innings.
Mengden, a 23-year-old who was called up on June 11, will get the start in the opener, replacing Rich Hill who was scratched because of a blister.
Mengden will be making his seventh start. He allowed six runs and six hits in 4 2/3 innings last Friday in a no-decision at Houston.