Blue Jays clinch first AL East championship in 22 years
BALTIMORE — Champagne and beer was spraying everywhere. Cigars were lit, and laughter filled the clubhouse.
It had been 22 years since the Toronto Blue Jays won the AL East, and they celebrated the occasion with the appropriate fanfare.
Wearing shirts that read "The East Is Ours," the Blue Jays yelled and screamed with delight in an appropriate conclusion to their unstoppable, two-month run.
With a 15-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday in the opener of a doubleheader, Toronto eliminated the New York Yankees from the division race and claimed its first title since 1993. The suspense ended quickly as the Blue Jays built a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning before adding four unearned runs in the fifth.
"It’s the ultimate right now," manager John Gibbons said. "To be honest, we think we have more ahead of us. It was a big hurdle to get over. It’s been so damn long. But I am proud of our guys from Day One. They just compete. That all we ask. That’s what happens when you have a lot of talent and they get after it every night."
The Blue Jays waited so long for this, there were two celebrations. After the first game, the players whooped and hollered and hugged around the mound. Because there was a another game to be played, the alcohol and cigars were put off until after the nightcap, which the Orioles won 8-1 against Toronto’s reserves.
In the opener, Marcus Stroman (4-0) allowed one run and five hits with eight strikeouts in his fourth start since returning from left knee surgery.
Jose Bautista hit his 40th home run, Edwin Encarnacion delivered No. 37 and Justin Smoak also connected for Toronto. Ryan Goins had a career-high five hits to help the Blue Jays win their sixth straight.
Toronto was fourth in the AL East on the morning of July 29 with a 50-51 record, eight games behind the Yankees. But boosted by the acquisitions of David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe, the Blue Jays won 42 of their next 56 games, outscoring opponents 342-200. They ended the major leagues’ longest playoff drought on Sept. 26 when they clinched no worse than a wild-card berth.
"We played good baseball," a drenched Price said. "I’ve done my part and so has everybody else on this team. It’s not one person, it’s not one trade. It’s everybody with one goal in sight."
General manager Alex Anthopoulos insists that in late July, the goal was merely to reach the playoffs.
"We felt we had a real good team that underachieved to this point," he said between games. "Our last two months, we were playing really good teams that we were going to chase. So, we thought we had a shot."
Stroman’s exceptional pitching this month added to the surge. The right-hander has a 1.67 ERA and has beaten the Yankees twice.
The Blue Jays open the AL Division Series at home on Oct. 8. They are just ahead of Kansas City for best record in the AL.
"We’re dangerous offensively. We’re dangerous on the mound," catcher Russell Martin said. "We play awesome defense. So, I mean, if somebody’s going to beat us, they’re going to have to play tremendously."
A year ago, Baltimore celebrated its first AL East title since 1997. On Wednesday, the Orioles watched their successors end an even longer wait.
"Congratulations to them. They earned it," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. "We had something that people came after, and they took it from us."
This was Baltimore’s first game since being officially eliminated from playoff contention, and it showed. Seven pitchers combined to issue 10 walks and the Orioles committed four errors despite coming in with the best fielding percentage in the majors.
"In any form of life, when you take hope out of the picture it really challenges you mentally and emotionally," Showalter said. "We didn’t respond to that in the first game."
After Miguel Gonzalez (9-12) walked three and gave up four runs in 3 2/3 innings, errant throws by pitcher Jason Garcia and Davis on the same play fueled a fifth-inning uprising that turned the game into a rout.
The loss ended any hope the Orioles had of salvaging a winning season.
In the second game, Chris Davis homered twice to take over the major league home run lead with 45. Manny Machado hit his 31st off Ryan Tepera (0-2) to break up a scoreless duel in the seventh.
Kevin Gausman (4-7) had a career-high 10 strikeouts over eight innings. Toronto starter R.A. Dickey pitched five innings in his final tuneup before the postseason.
Blue Jays: Tulowitzki (back, shoulder) is rapidly mending and could return before the postseason, manager John Gibbons said.
Orioles: CF Adam Jones remains sidelined with back problems. He’s played in one game since Sept. 20.
Thursday’s series finale was moved up to 12:05 p.m. EDT from 7:05 because of the threat of rain. Gibbons scratched Price and did not announce his starter. Rookie Tyler Wilson (2-2, 3.60 ERA) goes for Baltimore.