Jays hold the key

Roy Halladay got a warm greeting from St. Louis fans during the red-carpet parade for the all-star game. They chanted “We want Roy!” as he sat on the back of a vehicle and waved.

Roy Halladay got a warm greeting from St. Louis fans during the red-carpet parade for the all-star game. They chanted “We want Roy!” as he sat on the back of a vehicle and waved.

Get in line. The Blue Jays ace is sure to be a popular guy over the next couple weeks.

Halladay’s future is the most pressing question as baseball revs up for an intriguing second half, with muddled division races that once again could come down to the final days. General manager J.P. Ricciardi is listening to offers for the 2003 AL Cy Young Award winner, making the right-hander the biggest chip on the open market ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Halladay could tip the balance in the AL East if the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays make the best offer, or boost Philadelphia’s chances of winning a second consecutive World Series. Contending teams across baseball are salivating at the thought of inserting the ace into their rotation.

“Obviously, I’m somewhere that I enjoy being and have spent my entire career. There’s a lot, I think, that goes into it,” said Halladay, who would have to agree to any deal.

“I think as a player, there’s that will to win, that will to do it in October and basically that’s what all of this has been about. I would like that chance.”

Any number of clubs would love to give him that opportunity, including each of Toronto’s biggest rivals in the East. The Blue Jays’ division is still the toughest in baseball, showing off its top-to-bottom strength during the American League’s 4-3 victory over the NL on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford made a highlight-reel catch and won the MVP award. Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon got the decision and New York’s Mariano Rivera finished for his record fourth all-star save. Even lowly Baltimore got into the act, with Adam Jones hitting a tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the eighth inning.

The Blue Jays, who dropped back after a fast start, are talented enough to hurt the division’s top teams down the stretch, even if they decide to trade their best pitcher. Boston and New York were tied for the lead heading into the final weekend of the first half, but the Red Sox won three straight against Kansas City and the Yankees were swept by the Angels.

Don’t forget about the defending AL champion Rays, either. Tampa Bay was 6 1/2 games back.

“We have a small payroll. We’re always going to be underdogs, and I love that,” Rays slugger Carlos Pena said. “To know that we haven’t played I think up to our full potential, and we’re still in the race, is comforting.”

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