OAKLAND, Calif. – Things are starting to get real now. The baseball season is nearly two-thirds of the way through, the play is getting more cut-throat, and the pretenders will soon start dropping off the pace set by the legit contenders.
Any team with grand designs yet to make a move in the standings better get after it.
“This is the time where it gets exciting,” Josh Donaldson said Tuesday before his Toronto Blue Jays opened a six-game West Coast swing with a crisp 7-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics. “I’m not saying the other games didn’t mean anything, but now they’re really starting to mean a lot in the standings. The Yankees, it seems like they haven’t gone on a stretch where they’ve teetered off a little bit, so we’re going to have to force the issue and put some pressure on them and start winning some games.”
Behind home runs from Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, who became the third player in Blue Jays history with at least six seasons of 20 or more homers, and Russell Martin, whose three-run shot in the sixth was the back-breaker, they did just that in Donaldson’s return to O.co Colisuem.
Donaldson collected two hits, including an RBI double in the seventh, as the Blue Jays battered Kendall Graveman, one of the players dealt for the all-star third baseman, for six runs in 5.1 innings. Mark Buehrle, meanwhile, continued to shine by allowing one run on eight hits in seven innings of work, becoming the first pitcher in franchise history to make nine straight starts with at least six innings pitched and no more than two earned runs allowed. He’s up to 11-5.
“Trade deadline is coming up and teams make trades, it’s getting down to the last couple months of the season, you can’t really make too many mistakes because you’re going to fall out of the race,” said Buehrle. “This is what it’s about, this is the time when good teams are going to shine and the bad teams are going to fall out.”
Trips out west have often been graveyards for the Blue Jays, so this was an important win with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir set to pitch Wednesday and Thursday and Felix Hernandez due Friday in Seattle. Runs should be hard to come by in the days ahead just when they’re trying to make up ground on the AL East-leading Yankees.
The Blue Jays are 48-47, 4.5 games behind New York and three games back of Minnesota for the second wild card.
“Really, it’s time to make a move,” said manager John Gibbons. “We’re hovering around .500, that’s normally not going to get you anywhere. Our division is still all bunched up, but we’ve got a long home stretch once we get home, so we need to play good going into that, really. It’s been tough out here for us, but sooner or later if you’re going to get to the top, you’ve got to reverse that.”
Brett Lawrie, another key piece headed to Oakland in the Donaldson deal, had two hits but the Athletics had little else going on. Encarnacion opened the scoring in the second with his 19th homer of the year, a solo job, while Jose Reyes cashed in a Kevin Pillar double in the third to double the advantage.
After Buehrle escaped a two-on, none out jam in the fifth on a Stephen Vogt liner to Reyes, Bautista opened the sixth with his 20th homer of the season, No. 223 with the Blue Jays to tie Vernon Wells for second in club history, behind only Carlos Delgado’s 336.
After walks to Encarnacion and Justin Smoak, Martin rocked Graveman with his 13th, icing things.
“Two guys on, nobody out, I thought pretty much for sure Burns was going to be bunting there, he didn’t bunt, and then that line drive right to Reyes,” said Buehrle. “If he’s over a little bit, that’s in the gap, runs score and that totally changes the game. Good positioning by Luis (Rivera, the infield coach).”
Donaldson – who arrived late to the ballpark when his cab driver took a shortcut that turned a 30-minute ride to a two-hour one – admitted to his “heart fluttering” when he approached the stadium where he developed into an all-star.
Fans cheered him before each of his at-bats, making things even more emotional.
“I’m very grateful,” said Donaldson. “We had a lot of great memories here together, the fans and myself, and had a lot of success here. It was nice to feel appreciated. Early on in the game I was a little amped up, that’s kind of natural, but that being said, my teammates did a great job of putting together some innings and scoring some runs and Buehrle did his thing out there, put up some zeroes, gave up the one run. I thought it was a pretty well-played game.”
That, of course, is the most important thing for the Blue Jays, who have some work to do to catch the Yankees, and precious little time to waste.