How the Blue Jays got to the top of the AL East


With a 9-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday night, the Toronto Blue Jays moved into sole possession of first place in the American League East for the first time since April 4.

Since a 19-inning loss on July 1, the Blue Jays are an MLB-best 16-6.

Toronto is averaging 6.0 runs per game during that span (tied for most in the majors), up from 4.7 runs per game prior to July 2. Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki have combined for 18 home runs and 60 RBI, with Donaldson hitting .353.

The 2-3-4 hitters, which are normally Encarnacion, Michael Saunders and Tulowitzki in the lineup, have been taking care of business all season long. Toronto’s 2-3-4 hitters lead the MLB with a .924 OPS and pace the league with 75 home runs. Missing Jose Bautista from the leadoff spot hardly seemed to phase these batters. While he was on the DL (June 17-July 24), the Blue Jays’ 2-3-4 hitters hit 1.005 OPS to lead MLB and 25 home runs, second most in the AL.

But it’s not just the Blue Jays’ offense that has ignited. Pitchers Aaron Sanchez,J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman are a combined 9-0 during this run, with Sanchez and Happ owning the two lowest earned run averages in the American League.

Happ, in his second stint with the Blue Jays, is tied for the MLB lead with 14 wins. Against the Orioles on Saturday night, he finished with 11 strikeouts, tying for a season high that he established July 3 against the Cleveland Indians. His 14 wins this season are similar to what he had during his first stop in Toronto, when he finished with 19 wins from 2012-14.

Déjà vu

The Blue Jays went on a similar run last season after starting 50-51. They won 14 of their next 15 games, moved into first place on Aug. 12 and won the division by six games. One major piece of their success was the addition of Tulowitzki, whom they traded for in exchange for Jose Reyes and three pitching prospects last July.

What’s the big rush for the playoffs this season?

The Blue Jays will need a lot of glue — and money — to keep the team together over the next two years.

Bautista, who returned from the DL on July 25, will be a free agent in 2017. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and Encarnacion are currently playing on club options, and they will join Marco Estrada and Kevin Pillar as free agents this offseason.

Saunders re-signed for a second year with the Blue Jays for $2.9 million, but he has hit 19 home runs after playing just nine games last season due to injury. Donaldson, the reigning AL MVP, signed a two-year, $28.65 million contract in February.

What lies ahead

In Sunday’s rubber match of this three-game series with the Orioles, Sanchez faces off with Chris Tillman.

Tillman and the Orioles are looking to forget his last start. In his first four starts in July, Tillman went seven innings in each and allowed exactly one run in every one of them. In his last start against the Colorado Rockies, however, he allowed six runs, which was tied for a season high.

The Rockies had a field day with Tillman’s off-speed pitches, going 7-for-14 in at-bats ending with his changeup, curveball or slider. The seven hits he allowed on those pitches were his most in a game in his career.

Tillman has struggled against the Blue Jays in his career. In 22 starts against Toronto, he has a 5.71 ERA and has just five wins.

Sanchez has been a revelation as a starting pitcher for the Blue Jays. After spending the majority of his short career in the bullpen, he is now one of the best starting pitchers in the American League. He has a 2.72 ERA, the second-best ERA for an American League pitcher his age or younger in the wild card era (since 1994), behind only Felix Hernandez.

Since he allowed six runs to the Orioles in his June 12 start, Sanchez has gone seven straight starts without allowing more than two runs. A key for Sanchez has been limiting his walks. In those seven starts, Sanchez hasn’t walk more than two batters in any of them.

ESPN | Photo: MLB

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Dusty Fields

I like baseball, camping and being out on the lake in my boat. My dog Sparky loves it too! Make sure you follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest by clicking on the tabs.

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