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Gibbons says Blue Jays are feeling much better now than this time last year

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TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays started last season with an April swoon that they never really recovered from.

Buoyed by a four-game winning streak and a return to the .500 mark entering play Thursday night, manager John Gibbons said the feeling around the team is much better now than this time last year.

"No doubt. I think last year was a little bit of a shock to everybody," Gibbons said during a pre-game availability. "But I think they always had a good attitude. But everybody was kind of like they got hit by a two-by-four ... I definitely feel something different this year.

"They're feeling good."

Expectations were sky-high for last year's squad after an off-season makeover brought in big names like R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Mark Buehrle. However, the team lost 21 of its first 31 games and struggled to a last-place finish in the American League East.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos kept the changes to a minimum in the last off-season. There are early signs that might have been a prudent approach.

The Blue Jays had a few hiccups in recent weeks — including a couple meltdowns from their usually strong bullpen — but appear to be back in form as they continued a nine-game homestand Thursday night against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Toronto's starting rotation has been anchored by the steady play of Buehrle, who is off to a 6-1 start with a sparkling 1.91 earned-run average. The Blue Jays' starters have been going deeper into games and easing the pressure on the bullpen, which looked good early on but has had some inconsistent patches.

Closer Casey Janssen could return from his rehab assignment in the coming days and that would also give the relief crew a boost.

Injuries were a problem last year. The absence of Reyes for most of the first half of the season had a ripple effect through the order and his defensive skills were missed. His troublesome hamstring was an issue last month but his game appears to be coming around.

A big difference early on this year is the meat of the lineup looks comfortable and is getting results.

Entering play Thursday, Melky Cabrera (.329, 6 HR, 14 RBIs) leads the American League with 48 hits, Jose Bautista (.300, 9 HR, 21 RBIs) has reached base in all 34 games and leads the American League with a 1.041 OPS (on-base plus slugging) while Edwin Encarnacion (.242, 4 HR, 21 RBIs) has been a threat in the cleanup spot.

There have also been some nice bonuses. Backup catcher Josh Thole is hitting .400, Juan Francisco filled in admirably when Adam Lind went down with a back problem and regular catcher Dioner Navarro has a .300 average.

Lind was activated Thursday and served as the designated hitter against the Phillies. He was hitting .324 at the time of his injury.

The Blue Jays have also been hitting for power — they lead the American League with 44 home runs and a team slugging percentage of .432 entering play against Philadelphia.

No one is strutting around the dugout after splitting the first 34 games of the season. But it's a marked improvement from the 13-23 record and woeful .361 winning percentage the Blue Jays had on this date last year.

Perhaps the positive feelings are boosted by the fact the other American League East clubs are in a similar boat with only 3 1/2 games separating first from worst.

The Blue Jays will play four games against the Los Angeles Angels before closing out the homestand with a three-game set against the Cleveland Indians.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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