TORONTO — This time, the seventh inning was a breeze for R.A. Dickey.
The veteran Toronto knuckleballer, who had made it through six innings in his previous six starts but each time failed to get out the seventh, turned in his strongest performance of the season Saturday, going 8-1/3 innings as the Blue Jays defeated the Oakland Athletics 5-2 at Rogers Centre.
“I feel like I’ve been right on the edge of a game like this for a long time,” said Dickey, who gave up five hits, struck out four and only walked one in improving to 5-4. “That’s what’s been encouraging.
“Thankfully today, I was able to break through the seventh and get into the eighth and ninth.”
Dickey received a standing ovation from 29,372 fans when he left with one out and two on in the ninth. The A’s made it interesting, getting the tying run to the plate in that final at-bat but Brett Cecil got Jed Lowrie on a sacrifice fly and struck out Alberto Callaspo for his third save and Toronto’s fifth straight win.
The win moved the Blue Jays 2.5 games up on the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees atop the American League. The last time Toronto was alone in first place this late in the season was July 6, 2000.
Dickey, who won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award with the New York Mets, lowered his earned run average to 3.95, the first time it’s been under 4.00 since he joined the Blue Jays in 2013.
“It’s great for our team to be able to keep the momentum that we’ve been generating over the past week-and-a-half or so,” said Dickey, who retired 19 of 21 hitters he faced at one stretch. “It’s nice to feel like you did your part in that.”
“He was dealing it,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons. “He really was. He was strong. He was very efficient. That particular pitch he throws, when it’s on it’s tough to do anything with it.
“You can usually tell early on when he’s got his good one going and today he did.”
Brett Lawrie had a home run for the Blue Jays while Melky Cabrera had two hits and two RBIs, and Jose Reyes had a pair of hits as Toronto (28-22) won for the 10th time in their last 12 ball games. They did their damage on Jesse Chavez (4-2), who gave up four runs, two of which were unearned, and eight hits.
The Blue Jays used their speed and took advantage of some sloppy defence from Oakland (30-19).
“We generated some runs today,” said Gibbons as Reyes scored twice from second on balls that never left the infield and Anthony Gose plated from first on a bobble in left field. “The old saying is speed never goes in slumps.”
After Oakland opened the scoring in the second inning on a Yeonis Cespedes solo home run to straightaway centre field, the Blue Jays tied it up in the third. Gose, who reached on a fielder’s choice, was moving first to third on Cabrera’s two-out, opposite field single when left-fielder Craig Gentry bobbled the ball, allowing the fleet-footed Gose to fly around third and slide into the plate ahead of the throw.
Toronto took the lead for good with three runs in the fifth. After Lawrie led off the inning by slamming his eighth home run into the Blue Jays bullpen to make it 2-1, they added some insurance, again courtesy of speed and shoddy defence by the A’s.
Gose slapped a sharp single the other way with one-out and moved up to third on a single by Reyes. After a wild pitch advanced Reyes to second, Cabrera hit a ground ball to first baseman Brandon Moss, who booted it as Gose was coming in to score and then flipped it past a covering Chavez, which allowed Reyes to scamper home, punctuating the run with a run head-first slide, making it 4-1.
Reyes repeated the feat in the seventh to put the Blue Jays up 5-1. After a lead-off double, he scored all the way from second when Cabrera hit a routine groundball to shortstop but the A’s made the play too slowly, again allowing Reyes to slide across home plate head-first before Moss could throw him out.
“That’s the way I play the game when I’m healthy,” said Reyes, who spent the early part of the season on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. “Stealing bases. Sliding all over the place.
“When I’m pain-free I’m able to do that stuff, so I’m feeling happy. Not only for me, but for the whole team because we’re playing really good baseball. It’s always fun when you’re winning.”
Toronto will go for the three-game sweep of the A.L. West leaders on Sunday afternoon.
Notes: The Blue Jays and A’s wrap up a three-game weekend series on Sunday when Oakland LHP Drew Pomeranz goes against Toronto LHP J.A. Happ… Going into Saturday’s game, Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion led the league in May with 11 home runs and 62 total bases and is second in RBIs with 24 and T2 with 16 extra-base hits in 22 games… Since 2010, the Blue Jays lead the Majors with 553 home runs prior to the all-star break, well ahead of the New York Yankees, who are second with 489.