Tuesday September 22nd, 2015

The American League East race hasn’t officially been decided yet, but what hopes the Yankees had of overtaking the Blue Jays in this week’s three-game series all but vanished before starter Adam Warren recorded his second out on Monday night. By that point, the majors’ most potent offense had piled up three runs, and behind ace David Price, Toronto coasted to a 4–2 win that expanded its division lead to 3 1/2 games with just two head-to-head games remaining between the two teams.

Warren, restored to the banged-up Yankees rotation last week after spending the previous two and a half months in the bullpen, allowed four of the first five Blue Jays to reach base. Leadoff hitter Ben Revere singled, took second when Josh Donaldson was grazed by a pitch and came home on Jose Bautista’s single. Donaldson and Bautista advanced a base on a wild pitch by Warren with Donaldson scoring on Edwin Encarnacion’s grounder. Bautista came home on Justin Smoak’s double over the head of Carlos Beltran, which gave the Blue Jays a virtually insurmountable 3–0 lead with Price on the hill. By the time the inning ended—not without a two-out walk to Ryan Goins—Warren had burned through 35 of his scheduled 85 pitches, of which just 17 were strikes.

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That 3–0 lead was virtually insurmountable because Price not only came into the game with a league-low 2.42 ERA, but also with a streak of nine straight starts—his entire body of work since being acquired from the Tigers on July 30—allowing three runs or fewer. Facing the Yankees for the fifth time this season, and fourth as a Blue Jay, the 30-year-old southpaw improved that streak to 10, allowing just two hits and one walk over seven innings while striking out seven.

Price yielded a two-out single to Alex Rodriguez in the first, then had to escape a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the third, as Dustin Ackley reached on a throwing error by second baseman Cliff Pennington, Jacoby Ellsbury singled and Brett Gardner walked. Price escaped by striking out Rodriguez, then getting Brian McCann to line out to centerfield. That began a run of 14 straight batters retired, one that didn't end until manager John Gibbons lifted Price after 114 pitches. Including Monday night's effort, Price has allowed five runs in 26 1/3 innings against the Yankees as a Blue Jay, with the Jays going 3–1 in those starts.

Though he continued to labor via innings of 22 and 19 pitches, Warren did manage to get the Yankees into the fourth by retiring eight of the final 10 batters he faced, five via strikeout, with just two additional singles. From there, a quartet of largely untested rookie relievers—James Pazos, Caleb Cotham, Chasen Shreve and Branden Pinder, of whom only Shreve has more than 30 major-league innings—tried to keep the Jays at bay. The first three succeeded, but Pinder, who took over at the top of the seventh, walked Donaldson, allowed a Bautista double, intentionally walked Encarnacion to load the bases and then departed without recording an out. Andrew Bailey, pitching in just his fifth major-league game since undergoing surgery to repair his torn labrum and shoulder capsule in July 2013, limited the damage to a sacrifice fly to Martin that ran the score to 4–0.

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The Yankees cut into the lead after Price departed. Aaron Sanchez allowed both batters he faced, Didi Gregorius and Ackley, to reach base to start the eight via a walk and a single, respectively. Brett Cecil allowed an RBI single by Ellsbury to cut the lead to 4–1 and bring the tying run to the plate, but recovered by striking out Gardner (looking at a curveball that was at the upper edge of the zone), Rodriguez and McCann. The Yankees did add another run on a two-out, ninth-inning homer by rookie Greg Bird off rookie closer Roberto Osuna, but they could draw no closer.

The Blue Jays (86–64) are one step closer to their first division title since 1993, and 1 1/2 games behind the idle Royals (87–62) for the league’s top record and the No. 1 seed in the postseason. Toronto will send Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman to the mound in the remaining two games of the series. If not quite the mismatch of Monday night’s Price-Warren pairing, the matchups against Luis Severino and Ivan Nova do speak to the disarray of the Yankees’ rotation.

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On Sunday, the Yankees announced that Masahiro Tanaka, who held Toronto to just one run in 16 innings over two previous starts, would miss the series due to a Grade 1 right hamstring strain sustained while running to first base in Saturday’s start against the Mets, with Nova, who was bounced to the bullpen on the merits of his 5.11 ERA and 4.92 FIP earlier this month, taking his place. Tanaka’s injury isn't believed to be serious enough to cost him more than one start; the Yankees will now look to line him up either to pitch the wild-card game or the division-series opener (if they do overtake the Jays). Meanwhile, Monday brought the news that Nathan Eovaldi, out since Sept. 8 due to elbow inflammation, suffered a setback that will prevent him from resuming his throwing program this week, making it highly unlikely he could start for the Yankees in the postseason, since he would not be able to build up his pitch count in time. Though he’s carrying a 4.20 ERA, Eovaldi’s rising strikeout rate and 3.43 FIP offered hope that he had turned a corner in his development.

Somehow, manager Joe Girardi will cobble together a quartet of starters from among the able-bodied should the Yankees (82–67) reach the division series, but their odds of getting there are longer with the wild card their likely route, even with a three-game cushion over the Astros for the home-field advantage in that game. To catch up to the Blue Jays’ 93-win pace, the Yankees would need to go 11–2 the rest of the way—a tall order given their current shape—while the Jays finish 7–5. Summoning the spirit of Team Entropy, the two teams would then play a tiebreaker in Toronto, since the Jays have already clinched the season series by dint of a 12–5 edge. The winner would be the AL East champ, the loser likely the wild-card host.

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