It wasn’t the storybook scene anyone would have dreamt up: a half-empty road stadium in the first half of a doubleheader on a Wednesday afternoon.
It was a moment 22 years in the making for the Toronto Blue Jays franchise and almost a year in the making for the 2015 team. In front of an intimate crowd at Camden Yards wearing more blue than orange, the Blue Jays routed the Baltimore Orioles 15-2 to clinch the American League East.
The pennant is Toronto’s first since 1993, when it won its second of back-to-back World Series titles. It assures the Blue Jays a spot in the five-game AL Division Series rather than the uncertainty of a one-game wild-card playoff.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) September 30, 2015
“Anything can happen in a one-game series,” injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “You could have the best pitcher in the world starting for you and anything can really happen in those games.”
That’s not a problem anymore. In late July, any kind of post-season appearance would have been welcomed, before general manager Alex Anthopoulos went all-in, trading for Tulowitzki, ace David Price, outfielder Ben Revere and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe at the deadline.
Those moves worked like a charm, taking a Blue Jays team that was 50-51 and eight games back of first place on the day Tulowitzki entered the lineup on a 42-14 run up the standings, past the New York Yankees and into October.
Winning the division seemed inevitable in recent days as the Yankees struggled and the Blue Jays kept rolling.
The final victory of that accomplishment came Wednesday with young stud Marcus Stroman on the mound in just his fourth start of the season following a torn ACL in spring training. Stroman (4-0) was masterful yet again, striking out eight and allowing just one run on five hits in eight innings.
In typical Blue Jays fashion, the most productive lineup in baseball led the way by tormenting opposing pitching. RBI hits by Russell Martin and Ryan Goins in the second inning and more trouble in the fourth forced Baltimore starter Miguel Gonzalez (9-12) out of the game.
With Anthopoulos watching in the first row above the visiting dugout, the Blue Jays poured it on, scoring four runs in the fifth, including three on an infield dribbler that allowed hitter Darwin Barney to come around to score.
Edwin Encarnacion hit his 37th home run of the season, a two-run shot, in the seventh to get to double digits, and Jose Bautista hit his 40th in the ninth. Justin Smoak added a two-run shot to put an exclamation point on the blowout.
It was the 41st time in 157 games Toronto scored eight or more runs. Bautista’s blast also got the Blue Jays two hitters with 40-plus home runs (MVP front-runner Josh Donaldson has 41) for the third time in franchise history and first time since 2000.
Everyone in the lineup got at least one hit for a total of 18. Goins set a new career high with five.
This monstrous offensive outburst made the clinching game feel like a coronation, in front of Blue Jays fans who chanted “MVP” for Donaldson’s at-bats and serenaded Anthopoulos with a chorus of “Thank you, Alex.” After Hawkins got the final out, players celebrated on the same field on which they watched Baltimore clinch the AL East a year ago.
This division title also came with the guarantee of home-field advantage in the ALDS. The Blue Jays will either play host to the AL West champions — the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim or Houston Astros — or the wild-card team at Rogers Centre for Game 1 on Oct. 8.
Home-field throughout the playoffs is within reach, too. The Blue Jays’ magic number to earn the top seed in the AL is three — any combination of victories and Kansas City Royals losses.
With the second half of the doubleheader and one more game against the Orioles left, that could come as soon as Thursday afternoon, since the Blue Jays’ game was moved up to 12:05 because of the threat of rain.