Injuries make AL East a three-team race

NEW YORK -- Of all the turning-point moments built into a season, the Blue Jays officially added Monday's 7-6 win over the Red Sox to the list -- and not because of how they scored the go-ahead run in the eighth inning, or that it inched them to within 2½ games of first place in the AL East. Actually, the organization's biggest boost comes from the countdown to A.J. Burnett's return to the rotation, which commenced when the right-hander threw on the side before the game.

It's nearly six weeks since Burnett went on the DL with strained ligaments in his elbow, a stunning setback for a team that was body-surfing a wave of momentum this spring. Manager John Gibbons said, "There was so much optimism when we signed A.J.; obviously it's been frustrating without him." Considering Josh Towers is 1-8, it's a semi-miracle that Toronto has stayed close to the Red Sox and Yankees, maybe because everyone else in the East has lost important chess pieces, as well.

Gustavo Chacin Chacin

A.J. Burnett Burnett

Besides Burnett, the Jays have been without Gustavo Chacin, who'll face Boston tonight after missing three starts. The Red Sox were without center fielder Coco Crisp for 42 games due to a broken finger, and David Wells has made just two starts this season because of knee problems. And most recently, they lost Mike Timlin, who's suffering from a strained right shoulder.

The Yankees have been blistered by injuries, too, having lost at various times Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Shawn Chacon, Jorge Posada, Tanyon Sturtze and Carl Pavano, who's been missing for a year.

The Yankees' run of bruises and breaks (and surgeries) has tempered their hope for a runaway summer; at one point in spring training some veterans were privately predicting a 100-plus victory season. That's all changed now. The collective mission is to hang on, weather the medical assault and prepare for another 11th-hour war in September.

"It's definitely been an unusual number of injuries on our side. We've had it worse than anyone, but I'm not complaining," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "We still have a lot of talent here, enough to get the job done. And injuries are part of the game. No one's going to feel sorry for us."

Indeed, no one in the division took advantage of the others' vulnerabilities, setting up the three-team race that the Jays, at least, had envisioned over the winter. Still, Gibbons says, "[The Red Sox and Yankees] are the ones you'd have to bet on because they know how to win, but we're hoping with A.J. back and Roy [Halladay] pitching the way he can, they can make a difference."

Gibbons went as far as to call this week's series with Boston a "big one … we need to play well against them." Treading water is all the Jays are hoping to do until Burnett returns. The manager said, "if you fall behind the Yankees and Red Sox, it's pretty hard to get back in the race. They don't usually come back to the pack."

The good news for all three clubs is that the worst appears to be over. The Jays are especially hopeful that Burnett's injuries -- which the Jays have been assured will not require surgery -- won't interfere with a scheduled return date of June 23. Meanwhile, Crisp's presence gives the Red Sox a bona fide base stealing threat (even as Kevin Youkilis batted .327 as the replacement leadoff hitter). And Wells is scheduled to make his next start despite being struck by a line drive on the knee last Friday against the Devil Rays.

And the Yankees have been bolstered by Sheffield's sudden recovery from a swollen left wrist, which kept him out of action for nearly three weeks in May. Still, the Yankees won't forget their frenzy when their left fielder was in street clothes, Matsui learned he'll be out at least until September and Jason Giambi nearly evaporated, batting .170 in Sheffield's No. 3 spot.

Bubba Crosby Crosby

When fourth outfielder Bubba Crosby went on the disabled list May 19 with a strained hamstring, Cashman called anyone, everyone, sensing disaster. "I wasn't just looking for replacements," the GM said. "I was looking for replacement for the replacements, three generations of replacements. I was worried about running out of outfielders."

Overnight, it seemed, the Yankees were swamped with unknown and/or fading talent. They summoned Melky Cabrera and Kevin Reese from the minors and signed Terrence Long, who'd been released from the Reds' Class AAA affiliate. The Bombers, undeterred by Long's recent unemployment, rushed him to the major league roster in less than a week, starting him in left field against the Red Sox.

Still waiting at Columbus are Richard Hidalgo, Erubiel Durazo, Jason Romano and Carlos Pena.

If Yankees fans were wondering who, exactly, they were rooting for, they weren't alone. Johnny Damon said, "It does have a spring training feel to it, but it's something we have to deal with. It could be the difference."

Indeed, the balance of power in the East is being determined now, in the wake of the "beating" everyone has taken, Gibbons said.

"It happens to every team, no one's immune," the manager said. "What gets you is it's one of your key guys. That's when you really have to hold it together. Hopefully, we will."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.