TORONTO -- The Blue Jays entered a three-game series vs. Oakland knowing full well it's still very early in the season, but also with the understanding that this is one of their first big tests of the year.
Oakland arguably has been the best team in baseball this season, while Toronto at least gives the appearance of an organization on the rise. That wasn't necessarily the case a few weeks ago, which is one of the reasons these three games can be used as a measuring stick to see just how far the club has come.
The early results from a Blue Jays perspective ended up being very positive, as Steve Tolleson hit a two-run homer while Liam Hendricks pitched 5 2/3 strong innings in his season debut to extend Toronto's winning streak to four games with a 3-2 victory over the Athletics on Friday night at Rogers Centre.
"When I've played on winning teams in the past, it takes contributions from all nine guys," Tolleson said after hitting his first homer of the year. "It takes contributions from all of the hitters at any given time. We have a tremendous lineup ... and when the bottom of the order can get on base, they can drive us in, or we produce some runs ourselves, it helps everybody."
The game was a highly anticipated matchup between a pair of teams that are leading their respective divisions. Oakland entered with the league's top offense and the best record in the Majors after winning 11 of its past 13 games, and was looking to carry that momentum into the series opener.
For the Blue Jays, this series is a trial of sorts to see if the recent run of success is real or somewhat of a mirage similar to last year's 11-game winning streak in an otherwise disappointing season. What's known for sure is that Toronto entered having won eight of its past 10 games to open up a one-game lead over the Yankees in the American Least East, which is the first time since 2009 the Blue Jays held a lead that late into a season.
The early prognosis from the Blue Jays' side was impressive. Hendriks, who was called up from Triple-A Buffalo prior to the game, pitched into the sixth inning and allowed one run. Oakland hit a number of fly balls to the warning track, but each time came up short of doing damage, with the exception of a solo homer by Brandon Moss in the fourth.
Hendriks' biggest challenge came in the fifth. He retired two of the first three batters he faced before hitting Kyle Blanks and walking Coco Crisp to load the bases. Jed Lowrie then crushed a 1-0 fastball from Hendriks and sent it deep to right-center field, but the ball hung up just long enough to be caught by Kevin Pillar for the third out.
The pitching line could have been a lot different if a couple more of Oakland's fly balls traveled a bit further, but overall, it was a success. The 25-year-old allowed three hits with three walks, which was the same amount he had in 48 2/3 innings with Triple-A Buffalo this season. It was Hendriks' first victory at the Major League level since he defeated the Rangers on Aug. 30 while still a member of the Twins.
That original stint in Minnesota didn't exactly go as planned. He signed with the club as an amateur free agent in 2007 and went 2-13 with an ugly 6.06 ERA over parts of three seasons (2011-13). His confidence took a bit of a hit, but he was able to gain some of that back in Buffalo, where he posted a 1.48 ERA over nine games.
"It's a huge thing for me," Hendriks said of being named Toronto's fifth starter. "I was given an opportunity in Minnesota and I didn't capitalize on it. Now I have a different mindset of coming into the season, getting ready, getting aggressive and getting after guys early. I think it's paid dividends so far, and hopefully I can continue this trend and stay up here all year."
Toronto got its offensive spark in the second inning from a somewhat unlikely source. Tolleson got ahead in the count, 3-1, and lifted a 91-mph fastball from left-hander Scott Kazmir over the wall in left for a two-run shot. It was Tolleson's first homer of the season and his fourth in 158 career at-bats.
The Blue Jays' potent offense continues to be led by a high number of home runs. Toronto has gone deep at least once in all but five of its past 30 games and out-homered the opposition 50-27 over that span. The Blue Jays lead the Major Leagues in home runs with 68 and have 36 during the month of May alone.
Toronto's other run came in the third when Pillar led off with a double down the right-field line. He advanced to third when Kazmir attempted a pickoff, even though nobody was covering second base. Kazmir's throw went into center field and allowed Pillar to move up, before he scored on a grounder by Jose Reyes.
"Definitely one pitch I want to have back, but overall I was pleased," Kazmir said. "Just that pickoff play at second base, that turned out to be costly. It was completely, 100 percent my fault. Just should've held on to it. It ended up being the difference-maker in the game."
Oakland got one run back in the eighth, but Casey Janssen entered in the ninth to record his sixth save in as many attempts this season. Toronto has won 14 of its past 19 games dating back to May 4. But with two more still remaining against Oakland, the early season test isn't over, it's just beginning.