Power, pitching help Blue Jays close in on Yankees in AL East race
On Friday, a few hours before the start of a crucial three-game series in New York between the top two teams in the AL East, about a half-dozen Blue Jays fans entered Yankee Stadium chanting in confident anticipation: “Dickey today, Price tomorrow, Estrada on Sunday and sweep!”
Yankees faithful in earshot reacted with boos and “Let’s go Yankees” chants of their own that drowned out their voluble visitors, but it was the last time on the weekend the home team could claim victory.
To the collective glee of Blue Jays fans everywhere, their chant came true. By the seventh inning of Sunday’s game, as Toronto inched closer to a 2–0 win that completed the sweep and drew the Jays within 1 1/12 games of first place, the cheers of their fans were loud enough to be heard on television. This time, much like their team, Yankees fans had no response.
Before the series began, Toronto manager John Gibbons had called it “the most meaningful” series the franchise had played in the Bronx in two decades. When it was over, the Blue Jays had not only assured that there would be an even bigger series there between the two clubs next month—a four-game set from Sept. 10 to 13—but had also cemented their status as serious contenders for their first postseason berth in 22 years, the longest drought in the majors.
In the intervening time, the Yankees have been to the playoffs 16 times and won 12 division titles, seven pennants and five World Series titles. They entered the weekend having gone 13–6 since the All-Star break, tied for the best record in the American League in that time, and had scored 100 runs over a 12-game stretch from July 23 to Aug. 4.
Toronto, though, had also gone 13–6 since the start of the second half, and it boasts the most prolific offense in the majors and the best run differential. It had also become a very different team, thanks to a series of moves at the trade deadline. On July 28, the Jays acquired five-time All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and 42-year-old reliever LaTroy Hawkins from the Rockies. On July 30, they landed David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner with Tampa Bay, in a deal with the Tigers. And on July 31, they picked up speedster and centerfielder Ben Revere and reliever Mark Lowe in trades with the Phillies and Mariners, respectively.
Toronto came to the Bronx having won five in a row and eight out of nine but hadn’t dented New York’s 4 1/2-game lead and had modest expectations. “We don’t need to come out here and sweep these guys,” said Price on Friday.
Of course, that’s exactly what the Jays did, outscoring the Yankees 10–1 in the process. The Bombers’ only run came via a replay-assisted solo home run by Mark Teixeira leading off the second inning on Friday. New York failed to score again the rest of the series, as it was shut out in consecutive games for the first time this century.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, hit six home home runs in the series. On Friday, Donaldson’s blast in the first and Bautista’s in the 10th accounted for all of Toronto’s scoring. On Saturday, Smoak’s grand slam off Ivan Nova broke a scoreless tie in the sixth and Tulowitzki added a solo shot in the seventh of a 6–0 final. And on Sunday, Donaldson and Bautista both went deep off Masahiro Tanaka for the only two runs of the game.
After his game-winning homer in the series opener, Bautista, a 34-year-old who has yet to reach the postseason in his 12-year career, said of the Yankees, “I can’t think they feel too good right now. We’re coming after them.”
Having been beaten by Toronto’s longest-tenured member on Friday, the Yankees on Saturday fell victim to one of the Jays’ newest faces, Price. The superstar southpaw had thrown eight innings of three-hit, 11-strikeout ball in his Toronto debut against the Twins on Aug. 3, but his struggles against New York were well documented. Coming into Saturday’s start, he hadn’t won against the Yankees since 2010, and his last two starts against them he had given up 16 runs and 22 hits in 4 1/3 innings, including a disastrous outing in August of 2014 in which he was pulled in the third inning after surrendering nine straight hits.
“Nobody walked. Nobody lined out. Nine straight,” Price said, remembering that outing he’d no doubt love to forget. “Whoever’s throwing [batting practice] for the Yankees today won’t give up nine straight hits.”
The Yankees didn’t come close to repeating that success against Price, who allowed just three hits over seven shutout innings while striking out seven.
“I felt good in both of my two starts with the Blue Jays; I didn’t feel too good my last two or three starts with the Tigers, not body wise, just execution wise out there on the mound,” Price said on Sunday. “I didn’t pitch well at all against them last two times; they kicked my tail. I was probably trying to do too much. That can often be the case when you’re facing the Yankees. But that’s the great thing about pitching behind this offense. I knew they’d break through eventually, and thankfully Smoak’s grand slam put up a very crooked number.”
Price’s pitching and Smoak’s slam overshadowed Tulowitzki’s solo homer. It proved to be his only hit in 12 at-bats in the series, but his mere presence in the lineup has been integral to the Jays’ hot streak. Since his acquisition, Toronto has won all 11 games Tulowitzki has played, and lost the only game that he didn’t.
That influence is no surprise to Hawkins, who first played with Tulowitzki during the latter’s rookie season with the pennant-winning Rockies in 2007 and then again for sub-.500 Colorado teams in ‘14 and ‘15. “When I first saw him walk into the clubhouse in ‘07, I asked who that was. They said, ‘That’s Troy Tulowitzki, he might be our starting shortstop.’ I said then, ‘No, he will be our starting shortstop.
“I didn’t see the same guy last two years. He always gave his all, but losing takes a toll on you. I don’t care what anybody says. Nowadays, I see ’07. He looks really, really good.”
So do the Blue Jays, who finished the sweep on Sunday behind the stellar pitching of Marco Estrada, who tossed 6 1/3 shutout frames. Overall, Toronto’s three starters—R.A. Dickey, Price and Estrada—allowed just 12 hits and eight walks and struck out 16 in 20 1/3 innings in the series. Price and Estrada are now lined up to start the first two games of the next showdown between the Jays and the Yankees, which comes this weekend at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. That set could determine first place in the AL East, and the Jays still have seven more games against New York in September. They were eight games out on July 28 but have now rejoined the hunt for October.
“We’ve climbed back real close in this thing, but we have to continue to play good baseball,” said Gibbons after the sweep was complete. “We haven’t done anything yet but excite our fans. Hopefully we keep that up.”