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A year late, but Jays are relevant again

A little story. My first job in sports was an agate clerk at the Seattle Times -- answering phones, working up box scores, writing up high school sports results and the like. One of the tasks would be to call the local paper to get a score if the Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team was on the road.

So it was 1992 or 1993, I can't remember exactly although I think it was 1993, the night the Blue Jays won the World Series. I called up the paper in Lethbridge or Medicine Hat to get the hockey score and I'll never forget the guy on the other end: "What's it feel like to see a Canadian team win the World Series!!!"

It wasn't a question or even an insult so much as an exclamation of pride. (What did I care about the Phillies anyway?) The Blue Jays were Canada's team and they'd just won the World Series and the dude was happy.

Here's the point, if there is one: The Blue Jays were relevant back then, a team an entire nation cheered for and followed religiously. The Jays won three straight AL East titles from 1991-93, drawing over 4 million fans each season. They were the big-market behemoth in those days, able to sign or acquire high-priced veterans like Jack Morris, Dave Stewart, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and David Cone.

Those two Blue Jays World Series teams ('92 and '93) faded quickly, however, as the team aged quickly. They were under .500 in the strike season of 1994 and fell to last place in 1995. The Jays haven't really been relevant since 1993; they've finished higher than third place in the AL East just once, have never won 90 games, and have finished within 10 games of first place only in 2000, a year they won 83 games.

Since winning that World Series in 1993, every team except the Blue Jays and Royals have made the playoffs at least once. The Jays have never hit rock bottom, not like the Astros or Mariners or Cubs (they've lost 90 games just once in this dry spell), but they're no longer drawing 4 million fans to Rogers Centre, having drawn fewer than 2 million eight times since 2000. I'm not sure how religiously the fans in Lethbridge or Medicine Hat are still following the team.

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OK, that's your Blue Jays history. Let's get to 2014. On Thursday, the Jays pounded the Phillies 12-6, hitting five home runs, including this long blast by Edwin Encarnacion off A.J. Burnett for his 200th career home run. That completed a four-game home-and-home sweep of the Phillies -- 3-0 and 6-5 in Philly along with a 10-0 shutout on Wednesday when they roughed up Cliff Lee.

So now the Jays are 18-17, which at least put them in the race in what could be a weak AL East. More importantly, it's a much better start than last year's team that was expected to be a World Series favorite and instead stumbled to a 13-22 start after 35 games and never recovered.

That team suffered a slew of injuries that it wasn't able to overcome. The best thing about this start is the Jays have survived through a series of bumps along the way. Jose Reyes missed 17 games after hurting his hamstring in his first at-bat of the season. Adam Lind returned Thursday after missing nearly a month with a back injury (and homered off Burnett). Encarnacion, author of 78 home runs the past two seasons, was hitting .228 with two home runs three days ago. Now he has four home runs in the past three days while going 7-for-13.

While teams are struggling to score runs, the Jays have more potential firepower than any AL club if they can keep this lineup on the field: Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Encarnacion and Lind. Juan Francisco, playing third base with Brett Lawrie out, is hitting .311 with five home runs and center fielder Colby Rasmus, while a little all-or-nothing in his approach, hit his ninth home run on Thursday. Even both catchers -- Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole -- are hitting at least .300.

So is this the year the Jays become relevant again?

Why not?

Obviously, the rotation is still a concern and the bullpen has struggled at times. Mark Buehrle has been lights out with a 6-1 record and 1.91 ERA, but they need somebody to step up as a strong No. 2. R.A. Dickey will chew up innings and Drew Hutchison throws strikes and has looked solid in his return from Tommy John surgery, but Brandon Morrow is again injured and Dustin McGowan has averaged just five innings per start. Marcus Stroman was just called up to pitch in relief, but could join the rotation at some point. Certainly, if the Cubs start seriously shopping Jeff Samardzija, the Jays would be an interested team.

Still, this is a team that will rely on its offense.

It's been 21 years since the Jays played important games in September. It was supposed to happen last year. Maybe we were just off by a season.

Alert the folks in Medicine Hat: Check out your Jays.