ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – At the end of play on July 28, the Toronto Blue Jays sat in fourth place, eight games off the pace in the American League East, the same distance the third-placed Texas Rangers were from top spot in the American League West.
Each transformed at the trade deadline by some bold moves, the two clubs are set to meet in the AL Division Series starting Thursday at Rogers Centre after making hard charges up the standings in the final two months of the season.
“Really, I guess you can say us and Texas are probably the two hottest teams the last two months,” said manager John Gibbons. “It’s probably going to be a pretty good matchup.”
After adding Troy Tulowitzki, Game 1 starter David Price, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe, the Blue Jays finished the year at a 43-18 clip, vaulting past the New York Yankees to claim their first division crown since 1993.
The Rangers, who picked up Cole Hamels, Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson at the deadline, closed the year out at 41-22, with their ace left-hander dominating the Los Angeles Angels 9-2 on the final day of the season to beat out the Houston Astros for their first West title since 2011.
“All these teams that get to the playoffs are good teams, from when we’ve played them obviously Yovani Gallardo has thrown the ball well against us, Cole Hamels is always tough and they’ve been rolling since the trade deadline as well, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the game,” said GM Alex Anthopoulos. “Even the last series we played against them, I know we won two of the three, but one of them was a comeback late and it was tight. It will be a tough series for us.”
The Blue Jays won the season series between the clubs 4-2, taking two of three both in Toronto and at Arlington.
“It’s somewhat of a good feeling knowing that we actually played pretty well against Texas this year,” said Jose Bautista. “Most of us do pretty well in that ballpark when we play there, too. It’s one of those places where we always put up a lot of runs. It’s a hitters’ park just like ours. That’s probably going to help us.”
Perhaps, although they’ll get tested right out of the gate against Gallardo, who shut them out for 8.1 innings of three-hit ball June 27 at Rogers Centre and for another 5.1 frames of scoreless three-hit action Aug. 27.
Price faced the Rangers once this season, in a 12-4 win Aug. 26, allowing two runs over six innings with eight strikeouts on his 30th birthday. He’ll go into the Game 1 opener on 11 days of rest.
“Just keep playing the same baseball we’ve been playing,” said Price. “That’s what we need to do, keep playing the same baseball.”
The other matchups are yet to be determined, but by clinching the East on Wednesday, the Blue Jays can set up their rotation as they like and give players a few days to decompress while staying sharp by playing games without heat on.
“We feel good,” said Bautista. “I don’t see any injuries around here, and we’ve played good baseball year-round. I think everybody is feeling good. We’re confident, and we’re excited to get started. That’s about as far as I’m going to take that.”
Added Josh Donaldson: “We feel pretty good where we’re at right now, confident going into this series and we’re looking forward to having the next couple of days and getting after it again.”
“I don’t know if it necessarily matters” knowing in advance who the opponent is, Donaldson added, “but now that we know, it makes it a little bit better just for the team to game-plan about any situations. At the same time they’re a tough team and we’re going to have to bring our ‘A Game’ to win the series.”
The Blue Jays have some decisions to make with their post-season roster, including whether to carry both speedy outfielders Ezequiel Carrera and Dalton Pompey and who will be their secondary lefty specialist behind Brett Cecil, fellow southpaw Aaron Loup or a reverse-split specialist like Ryan Tepera.
Those will be finalized in the days to come.
In the interim, they have a few days to decompress and enjoy things.
“It’s been a tremendous year for these guys, it really has,” said Gibbons. “We’re glad it’s over. The tough part’s out of the way of getting in. Now we’ll go out there and have some fun and see what happens. I tip my hat to all those guys in the room and everybody in the organization. They did a heck of a job.”