TORONTO — This is how much it’s changed in the American League East – and how much it hasn’t changed.
A year ago to the night that Russell Martin effectively buried the New York Yankees and won the division title for the Toronto Blue Jays with an ear-splitting two-run home run, the Blue Jays once again stuck a dagger in the the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees were forced last season to instead play the one-shot, winner-take-all wild-card play-in game, where they were beaten by the Houston Astros. Hell, might as well not even made it.
But this wasn’t a dagger. Not this year. Not Friday night. No, this time, it was more like one thousand pin-pricks.
This win was about Devon Travis’s first sacrifice bunt of the season and a bunch of opposite-field singles, a one-hopper here, a two-hopper there. Josh Donaldson’s two-run homer in the eighth was a “Barfield” — good for the soul, good for the personal stats, but little to do with the outcome. Toss in a fielding error and erratic starting pitching, et voilà!
Pressed about his bullpen use and his avoidance of his “A” group of relievers, Girardi rankled when asked if that meant a 3-0 lead was too much for his team to overcome. That was the point at which he took starter Brian Mitchell out of the game and brought in Bryan Parker, who pulled a Drew Storen. “We have some issues,” Girardi said. “We have no starter for Monday … I just want to piece it all together.”
And then he got out from behind his desk in the manager’s office, sliding through a large group of reporters, muttering about how he believed the reporter who asked the question must be enjoying what has happened to what was at one point the best story in baseball. It was a fair question, because Girardi managed the game as if his team was out of it at 3-0. And you thought Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was the only one crying for offence, right?
“You don’t want to burn them on nights where you’re not going to win or not have a chance,” Girardi said of avoiding, say, Adam Warren and maybe Tyler Clippard. “If it was closer, I would have gone to [Warren].”
Yankees rookie Gary Sanchez brought the magic, doubling in the first inning for his 31st extra-base hit out of 58 career hits. But there was nothing else. No smoke or mirrors. The rebuilding Yankees, it seems, are acting their age. Finally. God bless them for the run they went on after their team was surgically deconstructed at the trade deadline. But like last season, it seems as if this is where the road ends.
“It’s tough, man,” closer Dellin Betances said, quietly. “We’re in a tough spot. Trying to climb, climb … all year, climbing.”
Martin’s homer on Sept. 23, 2015, lifted the Blue Jays to a 4-0 win and put them 3.5 games up on the second-place Yankees, capping off a three-game series in which the Blue Jays won two. After that game, Girardi waved what amounted to a rhetorical white flag. “That’s the difference in the standings – what they’ve done to us,” he said after the Blue Jays won the season series 13-6. “Right now, it’s the difference in the division. It’s not mathematically impossible … but we’re going to have to almost be perfect.” And it was Martin who was the difference-maker in the difference-making series, as the former Yankees catcher hit .300 with five homers and 18 RBI in 16 games.
Friday’s win left the Blue Jays with a 10-6 record against the Yankees, with three games remaining in their wrap-around series. But it’s all much different in 2016. The Blue Jays are playing for a wild-card berth; the Yankees are now four games back in the race for the second wild-card spot and planning for spring training. The Blue Jays can’t do anything about the hard-charging Detroit Tigers or the plucky Houston Astrosor Seattle Mariners making a run at the wild-card, but they can bury the Yankees and then dump dirt on the Baltimore Orioles and Buck Showalter next week. I know, I know — I can’t wait for that, either. This is the time of year where it’s all about not having to leapfrog one or two teams to earn a playoff berth, and the Blue Jays are in the second-best place they could possibly be.
There is not the same tone to late September this season. The Blue Jays have looked old and have had difficulty driving in runners and, truth is, very few of their fans would bank on them piecing together another outburst like Friday’s. They’re not stale, compared to the 2015 team, but neither are they as fresh or sexy. The 2015 Blue Jays looked like they could play forever and ever. Not so, this group. Still, they’re setting the pace. As for the Yankees? “Things are kind of slipping away at this point,” said left-fielder Brett Gardner. “We’re not out of it … but we’re not in a good position.” This time, there’s no safety net.
Jeff Blair via Sports Net | Photo: Mark Blinch, The Canadian Press via AP
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