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Toronto on Top: Jays kick off homestand in sole possession of first place

TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in a most unusual spot.

For the first time in five years, Canada's only Major League Baseball team is in sole possession of first place in the American League East. Entering Friday's games, Toronto (26-22) was one game ahead of the New York Yankees in the division standings.

Now, the Blue Jays' .542 winning percentage is still rather modest, and mediocre play from other teams in the division have helped them get to the top. But first place is still first place, and Toronto will take it.

"We're feeling pretty good," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said before Friday night's home game against Oakland. "Baseball, like anything else, is a confidence game. When you start feeling good about yourself, there's no telling what could happen."

Toronto's powerful offence deserves plenty of credit for the team's rise up the standings.

Entering Friday's games, the Blue Jays led the major leagues in home runs (67) and were fourth in runs (235), second in slugging percentage (.445) and second in extra-base hits (168). The starting rotation has been decent and the bullpen has been bolstered by the recent return of closer Casey Janssen.

However, over two-thirds of the long 162-game regular season remains, and it's unlikely the mediocrity throughout the rest of the division will continue.

"I don't think anybody is really celebrating or anything by any means," Gibbons said. "But you're right, it's been a while. When you look back at last year at this time, we were staring up a pretty good mountain right there.

"But the bottom line is we're playing good baseball. We're pitching well, we're really swinging the bats, we're hitting some home runs, doing a lot of little things and for the most part our defence has been very good. That usually adds up to wins."

Boston, New York, Baltimore and Tampa Bay were all over the .500 mark at this time last year. Toronto was in last place at 20-27, 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees.

This season, New York and Baltimore are hovering near .500 while Boston and Tampa Bay have struggled.

"I think our division is up for grabs," Gibbons said. "There's a lot of teams that are beat up out there. Some teams have lost some pretty good pitchers through injuries, so we'll see. We'll see where it all ends up."

The Athletics, meanwhile, took an impressive 30-17 record into the series opener.

"We've got a good test this weekend," Gibbons said. "Oakland is probably the top team in baseball so we'll see how good we are."

The Blue Jays will take on Tampa Bay and Kansas City later in the homestand.

Australian Liam Hendriks was recalled from triple-A Buffalo earlier in the day and fellow right-hander Esmil Rogers was designated for assignment by Toronto. In 10 games for the Bisons, Hendriks had a 5-0 record with a 1.48 earned-run average.

Hendriks was given the start for the series opener. He has struggled at the major-league level with a 2-13 record and 6.06 ERA over three seasons with Minnesota.

Rogers, meanwhile, had a 6.97 ERA in 16 relief appearances for the Blue Jays this season. In 174 career games, he has a 16-21 record with a 5.59 ERA for Colorado, Cleveland and Toronto.

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