Blue Jays beat Rays to remain on fringe of playoff race

Justin Smoak crushed his 33rd home run of the season on a fly ball to center field.

TORONTO – The playoff odds still aren’t kind to the Toronto Blue Jays, but all of a sudden the standings don’t look so unforgiving.

After their latest win, 5-3 over the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays are only 3.0 games back of the second American League wild card spot. They’d still have to pass five teams to actually claim that spot,so their odds of playing in October sat between 3.6 to 5.0 per cent entering play Thursday. But even with a -76 run differential and an ever-expanding selection of players on the disabled list, a 10-5 August has the Blue Jays on the fringe of the race.

"It’s nice," Josh Donaldson said. "We feel OK where we’re at right now, but we still have a lot of room to climb, we still have a few teams ahead of us. Hopefully it comes down to the end of the season and we continue to play well."

Justin Smoak’s two-run, eighth inning home run gave the Blue Jays a 5-3 lead and a series win over the Rays, who are now tied with the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles in the AL East standings.

Before Smoak’s blast, Donaldson provided the Blue Jays with plenty of power, hitting two home runs off of Chris Archer, his 19th and 20th on the season. Two seasons ago, when Donaldson was the MVP of the American League, he posted a .939 on-base plus slugging. This year it’s .940.

"Josh is on fire now," manager John Gibbons said. "When he gets a pitch he likes, he’s not missing it now."

Of course there’s a massive difference in playing time when you compare 2015 to 2017. Right calf injuries have limited Donaldson to just 78 games this year—half a season’s worth—but in that limited time, he’s producing at an MVP level: 20 home runs, a .397 on-base percentage and 3.2 wins above replacement.

On the mound Chris Rowley provided the Blue Jays with five solid innings in his second big-league start, limiting the Rays to two runs on four hits. He struggled with his command, walking five hitters and leaving more pitches up in the zone than he did in his MLB debut.

"I’m not really somebody who can get away with walking five guys," Rowley said. "Not many people can. That’s entirely too many—something I’ve got to go back and look at."

Still, any manager will take five innings of two-run ball.

"He’s impressed me in the first two outings," Gibbons said. "Too many walks, no doubt about that (but if) he eliminates that, it’ll make a big, big difference for him."

Rowley’s success gives the Blue Jays options as they consider where to go next with their rotation. Joe Biagini pitched four scoreless innings at triple-A Thursday afternoon in his third—and, the Blue Jays hoped, final—tune-up with the Buffalo Bisons. Biagini threw 73 pitches, so it’s not a stretch to think he could provide five innings and 85-90 pitches his next time out.

Even though Biagini’s on the same schedule as Rowley, the Blue Jays have alternatives. Should Nick Tepesch struggle against the Chicago Cubs on Saturday, they could bump Tepesch for Biagini. Or, if Tepesch pitches well, they have a surplus of starters available. So far the Blue Jays have won three of the four games started by Rowley and Tepesch—not bad, considering they’re the club’s 11th and 12th starters of the season.

The Blue Jays’ bullpen continued to provide innings in bulk Thursday, with Aaron Loup, Danny Barnes, Tim Mayza, Dominic Leone and Roberto Osuna combining for 12 outs on a day Ryan Tepera was apparently unavailable. The Blue Jays haven’t had the luxury of easing Mayza in, but he has responded nonetheless. The left-hander struck out two of the three batters he faced to close out the seventh inning.

The Blue Jays also had some help from Wilson Ramos on a couple of occasions, first with his legs and then with his glove. The slow-footed Rays catcher was unable to reach second base on a ball he hit 328 feet into the left field corner, then unable to score from third on a slow roller to short.

The following inning, Ramos couldn’t corral an Archer slider, and Darwin Barney reached on a strikeout as a result. Three batters later, Barney scored on a Smoak single. In a close game, plays like that add up.

"Winning always helps, but at the same time we felt like we should have been doing this all year," Smoak said.

With only six weeks left in the regular season, the Blue Jays have little room for error, but at least some hope. Next up: a two-city road trip that will present its own set of challenges starting Friday when they open a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.