3 Keys for Toronto Blue Jays Taking Upcoming Series vs. Houston Astros

Mohammad Arshad@@WahajArshadCorrespondent IApril 7, 2014

3 Keys for Toronto Blue Jays Taking Upcoming Series vs. Houston Astros

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    The Toronto Blue Jays went 3-4 during the opening week of the 2014 season.

    Although that mark is nothing to brag about, it really isn’t a terrible record considering the team had to play a four-game series on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays and then come home to face the New York Yankees.

    The pitchers that the Blue Jays had to face during those seven games? David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia.

    So yeah, one game back of first is definitely a good start for a Toronto team many analysts predicted would finish last in the AL East.

    With a three-game set at home against the Houston Astros coming up on Tuesday, the Blue Jays need to use this opportunity to go on a run and get their record back over .500.

    Here are the three keys to success for the Toronto Blue Jays in this upcoming series.

1. Don’t Take the Houston Astros Lightly Because of Last Season’s Standings

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    The Astros finished with an MLB-worst 51-111 record last year in what was their first season in the American League.

    But while it may be tempting to look at that poor record and take Houston lightly this year, it is worth noting that the Astros have looked like a different team so far in their first two series. The Astros have a 3-3 record and have already slugged nine homers, currently tops in the AL.

    Houston won two of three games against the New York Yankees—the same team that just took two of three games against Toronto—and will go for a series split against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday.

    With the series taking place at a very hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, Toronto’s pitchers will need to take care to keep the ball down against an Astros offense that has displayed a lot of pop early on in the season.

    It’s also worth noting that Toronto didn’t exactly dominate the Astros last season, going just 4-3 against them.

    Looking at all these factors, it’s important that the Blue Jays don’t go into this series underestimating the Astros because of last season’s standings.

2. Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan Need to Start Delivering on Potential

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    Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan are the three Blue Jays starters slated to pitch in this upcoming series.

    Buehrle was spectacular in his first outing against the Tampa Bay Rays, going 8.2 innings and giving up no runs while striking out 11.

    But Morrow and McGowan both labored in their first starts of the season, resulting in the team losing those two games.

    Morrow pitched five innings in his start against the Rays and gave up four runs on seven hits. McGowan struggled even more, giving up four runs on eight hits in just 2.2 innings against the Yankees during the Blue Jays' home opener.

    More is expected out of these two pitchers and both of them will be looking to rebound against the Astros.

    Morrow especially is expected to be one of the top pitchers in the rotation this season. The 29-year-old had a season to forget to last year where he struggled in his first few starts before being shut down for the year due to an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm.

    The hope was that, coming into this season healthy, the right-hander would finally take that next step and build off an excellent 2012 campaign, during which he posted a 2.96 ERA in 124.2 innings pitched.

    But after having trouble locating his fastball during most of spring training and then his first start of the season, Morrow has plenty of work to do if he wants to finally deliver on all his potential.

    While Morrow is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the rotation for the foreseeable future, things are much less certain for McGowan.

    The 32-year-old won his spot on the rotation during the final week of spring training, but he isn’t guaranteed to hold it for long if he keeps having poor outings.

    McGowan’s start against the Yankees was his first since 2008, but he showed that his stuff is still there.

    The right-hander hit 95 mph on his fastball and generated several swing-and-misses off his slider. But he also failed to put everything together, getting deep into counts and having trouble getting hitters out.

    While McGowan’s place on the team is secure, his spot on the rotation is not. He could be shifted to the bullpen if he has similar problems in future starts.

    The Blue Jays are carrying Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond in their bullpen, and it’s worth noting that both these pitchers started games for the team last season. One of them could be tabbed to take McGowan’s spot in the rotation if he can't pitch deeper into games.

3. Blue Jays’ Offense Needs to Break out

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    The offense was supposed to be this team’s biggest strength heading into the season, but that certainly hasn’t been the case prior to this series.

    Toronto has scored just 22 runs in its first seven games of the season, which simply isn’t good enough considering that the team doesn’t have a strong starting rotation that can hold opponents to a low run total every game.

    In fact, the Blue Jays have lost every game this season where their starting pitcher has surrendered three or more runs.

    As a team, Toronto is hitting just .216 and has an OBP of .277.

    What’s concerning about the lineup’s slow start is that it’s not just one or two players at the bottom of the batting order struggling, but several key players expected to be significant contributors.

    Cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnacion has five hits and 10 strikeouts in 28 at-bats. Third baseman Brett Lawrie has just three hits in 25 at-bats. Colby Rasmus has two hits and 10 strikeouts in 23 at-bats.

    With shortstop Jose Reyes out, these three players are an integral part of the lineup and will need to break out in this series for the team to have a realistic chance of winning.

    As mentioned earlier, Toronto has faced a lot of tough starting pitchers in its first seven games and that has most likely played a role in the lineup’s struggles to get anything going offensively.

    Facing an Astros staff that has currently posted a 4.50 team ERA and has a WHIP of 1.39 should give the Blue Jays lineup a much greater chance of scoring more runs.