ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Emerging from a season-defining stretch that featured 16 of 21 games against the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles with a 10-6 record, the Toronto Blue Jays head home with a solid grip on the top wild-card spot and a playoff-berth clinch imminent.
Their magic number is down to four after a 7-1 win Sunday secured a four-game weekend split at Tropicana Field, the soul-less circus tent where so many Blue Jays dreams have gone to die, and an Orioles setback to the Houston Astros.
Alejandro Kirk opened the second by rocking a 97 m.p.h. fastball from AL all-star starter Shane McClanahan over the wall in left, while George Springer took the lefty deep in both the third and fifth innings, leading the way in a second straight victory after three straight losses.
Teoscar Hernandez added a two-run shot in the eighth and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. an RBI single in the ninth, helping five shutout innings of hard contact but little damage from Ross Stripling and four frames of clean relief stand before a crowd of 16,394.
“We’re kind of where we wanted to be,” said interim manager John Schneider. “The last two games were very big, to state the obvious. But we’ve put ourselves in a position to keep trying to win series, continue to put ourselves in a position that if we do get into the post-season, we’re in a good spot. It’s nice to see the guys grind and it’s been a tough schedule. It’s no time to rest. You’ve got two more good teams coming up at home and finish with another good team in Baltimore. It’s nice that they’re continuing to have that mindset of winning series.”
At 86-67, the Blue Jays moved two games clear of the Rays (84-69) atop the wild-card race and 2.5 games up on the Seattle Mariners (83-69), who blew a nine-run lead in a 13-12 loss at Kansas City. The Orioles (79-73), who fell 6-3 to Houston in 11 innings, are another four games back.
The Blue Jays were in a much more precarious spot before this gruelling run began, heading into a Sept. 5 doubleheader at Baltimore trailing both the Mariners and Rays in the wild-card standings and just 1.5 games up on the Orioles for the third and final spot.
A sweep of that twin-bill spring-boarded them into a 13-8 run that included a 5-2 mark against the Orioles and a 5-4 run against the Rays — their perennial nemesis — that helped reset the standings and seemingly lock in the consistency they’ve searched for all season.
“Just understand that us as a team can do it, can play in these high-stakes games, understand what it takes,” Springer said of what the Blue Jays have accomplished. “At this point in the year, everything matters. It’s not one series. It’s not another series. It’s about playing good baseball all the time. And over the last month or so, this has been a team that’s been able to, at least, play some good baseball.”
Nine games remain, beginning with the first of three against the New York Yankees on Monday night. If not for the losses in five games last Sunday to Friday, that series would have at least put a run at the AL East on the spectrum of possibility.
Instead, the Yankees will arrive on the verge securing the division title, leaving the Blue Jays playing for home-field advantage in the wild-card round, where they may very well encounter the Rays once again.
Recovering to earn a split and finish 4-5 at the Trop this year — they were 5-5 versus the Rays at Rogers Centre — should help steel them for another meeting against a rival that dogged them in all 19 meetings.
“It’s a tough place to play,” said Stripling. “They play their brand of baseball and they make you come to them. We lose the first two here and then we’re able to walk away with a split in crunch time. Just a resilient team through and through that’s relying on the experience from the last two years and ready to go make some noise in October is kind of how it feels.”
McClanahan had been tough on the Blue Jays in the past, allowing only six earned runs in 26.1 innings over five previous starts, but gave up a career-high three homers in his five innings Sunday.
That support came after Stripling dodged damage in a first inning that included four balls put in play at 98.8 m.p.h. or harder. He better suppressed hard contact from there, allowing just a Taylor Walls double and Randy Arozarena sacrifice fly in the third over the next four innings.
A brilliant pick by third baseman Matt Chapman on an Isaac Paredes chopper with men on the corners to end the third helped, too.
Zach Pop, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards and Yusei Kikuchi each threw an inning to close things out.
“We’re slowing things down a little bit,” said Springer. “Obviously the end is near. Everyone understands that, so there’s a pretty big sense of urgency. But there’s no panic. There’s just go about your day, understand what has to get done, play, and we’ll see what happens.”
An approach that’s carried them to the brink of the playoffs after their toughest test of the year.