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Jays devise plan to keep Halladay healthy

TORONTO -- Even with Frank Thomas struggling to bat .200, leadoff man Reed Johnson on the disabled list with a bad back and Troy Glaus dealing with heel and hamstring problems, the Blue Jays entered Saturday with the game's best batting average (.299) and the most runs in the American League (58). But if they want to finally overcome the Yankees and Red Sox, they have to get enough pitching. And that means Roy Halladay has to last the season.

Halladay missed two months in 2004 because of shoulder trouble and the Jays finished fifth. A leg fracture cost him the final three months of 2005 and the club finished third at 80-82. Alarm bells went off last September when Halladay suffered a forearm strain but Halladay looks fine this year and seems ready to battle Minnesota's Johan Santana for another Cy Young Award.

Friday night against the defending AL champion Tigers, Halladay pitched a brilliant, 10-inning complete game that helped the Blue Jays earn a 2-1 win in a taut April thriller that had an October feel to it.

"By the third or fourth inning, everything was really locked in good and he kicked it in," said manager John Gibbons. "He's good. That's the bottom line. It's no secret."

The numbers are astounding. Halladay is 84-34 since the start of the 2002 season and the Jays are 26-9 in his 35 starts the last two years. But with loads of question marks behind him regarding the health and inconsistency of A.J. Burnett, Gustavo Chacin, Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers, the Jays are taking no chances with Halladay. They've made some key changes to his repertoire to try to keep him healthy.

Halladay is trying to work off his sinker and throw more change-ups this season, rather than just use pure power. In particular, he's trying to shave the number of cut fastballs he's using because the Jays believe the pitch has been responsible for the forearm problems that shut him down last year.

"I'm used to it now," Halladay said of the new approach. "I'm just trying to get outs as quick as I can to get as deep as I can. My thought is always the more strikes I throw, the more I can get them to swing early. The focus is always to try to get ahead in counts and it pays off."

Halladay's gem made him the first pitcher to go more than nine innings since St. Louis' Mark Mulder went 10 on April 23, 2005. More impressively, Halladay became the first AL pitcher to go more than nine innings and not walk a batter since Minnesota's Brad Radke did that against Milwaukee on Sept, 21, 1997.

Halladay gave up a solo home run to Magglio Ordonez in the second inning and nothing else as he threw his 10 innings in an economical 107 pitches. He is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA in three starts.

"He got a little irritated after [the home run]," said catcher Gregg Zaun. "When he gets that way, he tends to get a little stingy and that was the way he was the rest of the ballgame. He was throwing every pitch up there designed to get you out right now and for the most part, he did."

Gibbons said the Blue Jays have had no concerns about Halladay's arm since early in spring training. Halladay has thrown 23 innings in his three starts and also reports no problems.

"Sometimes it takes games like this where you can really stay out there to get in a groove to start feeling great," Halladay said. "I felt fine but there's a point where you've got to be smart about it. Throwing 120, 125 pitches at this point of the season would not have been the smartest thing but it's going OK right now.

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Nats brutal

Check out this wacky Elias Sports Bureau nugget: The Nationals took a second-inning lead Friday night in New York, snapping a streak that made them the only team since 1900 to not score in the first three innings of any of their first 10 games. The Nats, in fact, never led at any point in their first nine contests except when their winning run crossed the plate in the bottom of the ninth of an April 4 triumph over the Marlins.

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Hometown discount

For once, the Indians aren't going to lose an impending free agent. Pitcher Jake Westbrook signed a three-year, $33 million deal Friday night -- even though he could have gotten Gil Meche money in the $55 million range after the season. Westbrook, who said he simply wanted to stay in Cleveland, thus became the first Tribe player to stay with the club and not test the waters since Charles Nagy stayed in 1999.

With Westbrook in the fold, the Indians now have much bigger fish to fry in ace C.C. Sabathia and DH Travis Hafner, both of whom would be free agents after next season. Sabathia and the Tribe have suspended talks on a new deal while it's believed Hafner and the Tribe are still talking.

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Around the horn

*The Northeast storm could play havoc with the schedule in the next day or two in places like Boston, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. If there are a couple of postponements in Boston, it will be interesting to see what the Sox do with their rotation for this week's series in Toronto. Daisuke Matsuzaka's appearance may not necessarily be locked in to Tuesday just yet.

*The feud between former Angels teammates Jose Guillen and Brendan Donnelly nearly erupted into blows Tuesday at Fenway Park when Guillen objected to Donnelly's staredown after a strikeout in the eighth inning of Boston's blowout of Seattle.

"He can just send one of the bat boys to come get me outside, and then we'll take care of this as men," said Guillen.

Retorted Donnelly: "You know, a comparable quote would be, 'Meet me at the bike rack after school.' "

*It's been cold everywhere and players insist they're trying to adjust but there's no way to get comfortable in these conditions. Said Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca: "It's brutal. I'm a wimp."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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