Blue Jays beat Orioles to take over first place in AL East


TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays are rounding into form at the right time.

They were rewarded for it on Saturday with sole possession of first place in the American League East.

Devon Travis hit a home run, Kevin Pillar drove in four, and the Blue Jays used a seven-run fifth inning en route to a 9-1 victory over Baltimore that moved them a half-game up on the Orioles for top spot in the division for the first time since early April.

“We’re starting to play some good baseball, and that’s really what it comes down to, playing good baseball at the right time,” said Pillar. “It’s definitely something to be celebrated.”

With a third of the season still to be played, the Blue Jays seemed to be taking the achievement in stride.

Toronto’s run to close out last season did not start until this time last year. While enjoying the position that they are in, they are encouraged by what got them there.

“It means we’re playing good baseball,” said catcher Russell Martin, who had a pair of doubles. “There’s still a lot of baseball left. But I think we’re starting to play good ball. We’re swinging the bats well. We’re playing good defence. And we’re pitching well.

“What I like about this team is the consistency of our starting pitching. I feel like it’s been that way all year. If you want to be on a winning team, one of the main things you want to have is pitching.”

Saturday’s starter, J.A. Happ, improved to 14-3 on the year, tying the league lead in wins with four other pitchers. He also matched a season high with 11 strikeouts, going seven-plus innings while allowing only three hits.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons called Happ’s performance “dominant.”

Martin echoed that sentiment.

“His fastball was just exploding toward the plate,” Martin said. “It was a good mix of his two-seamer and his four-seamer. … When you’re aggressive and you get ahead of hitters, you can take a good hitter and take away the aggressiveness a little bit. When he’s using both sides of the plate, up and down as well, it’s like he has four different pitches with his fastball.”

Shut out through the first four innings, the Blue Jays (59-45) sent 11 batters to the plate in their decisive seven-run fifth.

Toronto trailed 1-0 heading into the fifth and started rolling with a one-out home run from Travis. Baltimore pitchers then walked four of the next five batters, including an intentional walk to Michael Saunders.

Edwin Encarnacion, Martin and Pillar combined to drive in five runs with doubles in the fifth and Troy Tulowitzki earned an RBI for a bases-loaded walk.

Pedro Alvarez accounted for the lone run for the Orioles (58-44) with a home run off Happ in the second inning, giving Baltimore a 1-0 lead.

The loss was the first for Yovani Gallardo(3-3) versus the Blue Jays, who had been 4-0 with a 1.78 earned-run average heading into the game.

The Blue Jays had not been in first place in the division since winning their first two games of the year.

Notes: After saying he would not field any more questions on the subject earlier in the week, Gibbons said starter Aaron Sanchez would likely be heading to the bullpen at some point this season: “It’s one of those deals that nobody wants to do it, but it’s probably going to happen for his own good.” Sanchez is likely to pass the most innings he has ever pitched in a season, 133 1/3 in 2014, in his scheduled start on Sunday. Sanchez is 11-1 with an American League-low 2.72 earned-run average in 132 1/3 innings so far this year.

The Blue Jays have been rumoured to be interested in acquiring a starter before Monday’s trade deadline. … Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson left the game in the bottom of the eighth inning after an infield single.

Gibbons said Donaldson’s hamstring tightened up on the play, but that he did not think the injury was serious. Darwin Barney finished the game in Donaldson’s place.

The Canadian Press via TSN | Photo: CBC

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Dusty Fields

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