ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The race for the best record in the American League – and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs – is going to game No. 162 for the Toronto Blue Jays, who’ll need some help on the season’s final day while they also look to take care of some other accomplishments.
Marco Estrada completed his brilliant campaign with 6.2 innings of two-run ball, but a two-run, walk-off single by Tim Beckham off Roberto Osuna lifted the Tampa Bay Rays to a 4-3 win Saturday night, dropping the American League East winners a game back of the Central Division champion Kansas City Royals.
The Royals are 94-67 but a loss to the Minnesota Twins combined with a Blue Jays victory will give manager John Gibbons’ team the best record since it owns the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series 4-3. Whoever finishes first overall gets the winner of the wild card game in the division series, while the loser faces the AL West champion.
“I don’t get caught up in that right now,” said Gibbons. “We go out and try to win our games and then let everything fall in place.”
Osuna, blowing his third save of the season, recorded two outs after allowing a leadoff double to Grady Sizemore, but walks to Steven Souza Jr. and James Loney set the stage for Beckham, who lined a base hit to left.
Backing Estrada in this one was Edwin Encarnacion’s go-ahead, two-run shot in the sixth inning, a drive that gave him 39 for the season, one away from combining with Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista to make the Blue Jays just the fourth team in big-league history with three 40-homer players.
The 1997 Colorado Rockies (Larry Walker 49, Andres Galarraga 41, Vinny Castilla 40) were the most recent club to achieve the feat.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Gibbons. “Three guys, that’s what they do, that’s who they are. We’re fortunate we’ve got them 1-2-3 coming right back-to-back-to-back. They’ve all had huge years. They’re really a huge part of getting us to this point right now.”
Another thing on the to-do list is to try and get Mark Buehrle the two innings he needs for a 15th straight season of at least 200 innings, and he’ll get the start Sunday if he’s recovered enough from Friday’s outing.
“If he’s good, he’ll start it,” said Gibbons, adding Drew Hutchison that gets the ball if Buehrle can’t go.
Estrada, meanwhile, established new career bests in wins (13), ERA (3.13), innings (181) and strikeouts (131) in 34 games, 28 of them starts, positioning him well for his looming free agency.
He finished up his season by allowing just three hits – two of them solo shots, one to John Jaso in the first, the other to Asdrubal Cabrera in the seventh – while striking out nine.
“Innings is always the biggest thing for me,” said the 32-year-old, whose previous high was 150.2 frames last year. “If you’re going deep into games you’re helping the team out a lot, so I think even for missing the one month of the season, I put up a good amount of innings.”
The right-hander stepped into the rotation in place of Daniel Norris at the beginning of May after being slowed in spring training by an ankle injury, added a cutter and sharpened his curveball, and provided a stability the Blue Jays desperately needed.
“I changed the curveball, I started throwing it a little harder, at least I felt like it, I don’t know if the rotation was a little better, had a lot of groundballs hit on that, probably the only pitch I can get a groundball on,” said Estrada. “I added the cutter, it kind of let me down today, I spun one up to Cabrera and he crushed it, but it was a great pitch all year, go in to lefties with it, started back-dooring it to them also, I front-doored one to Evan (Longoria) and just missed, but it’s a big pitch for me, I’m going to use it a lot more, that’s for sure.”
Facing nemesis Chris Archer for the second time in a week – they blasted him for nine runs in 3.2 innings last Saturday in Toronto – the Blue Jays managed to scratch out one run in his five innings, Jose Bautista sneaking a single through the left side to tie things 1-1 in the third.
The score stayed there until the sixth, when Brandon Gomes hit Bautista and then served up a 3-1 slider that Encarnacion walloped deep into the left-field stands.
The Blue Jays are down to one last day to tie up loose ends before the real fun begins.