By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Aug. 9) — The race for the American League East Division crown in Major League Baseball involves one pony. The Toronto Blue Jays were so far–superior to the New York Yankees during a three–game weekend sweep in the Bronx that New York’s 1½–game lead atop the division may as well be a 6½–game deficit. At least for today.
There is still a ton of baseball to be played. At the moment, however, it is difficult to argue that the Blue Jays — on paper and on the field — are not the best team in the A.L. Which is a remarkable development when it appeared, less than two weeks ago, that a .500 ball club would be life–and–death to stay in the American League wild card chase. But, some of the most impressive trade–deadline work in recent Major League memory has transformed a middling team into a World Series contender. The additions of Troy Tulowitzki (the Blue Jays are 11–0 with him starting at shortstop), David Price, LaTroy Hawkins and Ben Revere will likely thrust general manager Alex Anthopoulos into the lead among candidates for baseball executive–of–the–year. Playing as they are, the Jays have become the most lethal professional sports team in our city since the 1997 Toronto Argonauts, which is quite a gaudy comparison.
That club, led by quarterback Doug Flutie — later voted the best player in Canadian Football League history — went 15–3 and won the Grey Cup for a second consecutive year. It outscored the opposition 744–380 over 18 regular–season and two playoff games — an average margin of 37–19. It isn’t often a championship football team wins by 18 points per match.
JOSH DONALDSON BEGINS HOME RUN TROT IN THE FIRST INNING SUNDAY AFTER SMACKING NO. 31 OFF YANKEES STARTER MASAHIRO TANAKA. COREY SIPKINNEW NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
And, it isn’t often an explosive, one–dimensional baseball team undergoes metamorphosis after four months of the season. But, the Blue Jays appear to have done the caterpillar–to–butterfly thing in the past two weeks. Since July 29, the club is 11–1, outscoring its opposition 67–31 or 7–3 per game. The only attack that resembled Toronto’s was stymied beyond imagination this weekend at Yankee Stadium, as the Jays allowed one measly run over three games — winning 2–1, 6–0 and 2–0. By virtue of its first sweep in the Bronx since Apr. 14–17, 2003, the Blue Jays are within 1½ lengths (three games in the loss–column) of the first–place Yankees, who held a 7½–game margin just 11 days ago.
The headline in the New York Post after Sunday’s finale said it all:
YANKEES’ DISASTER FINISHES IN SWEEP AS BLUE JAYS LOOK MIGHTY
The New York Daily News led with:
BROOM JAYS: TORONTO COMPLETES SWEEP OF YANKEES IN BRONX
For veteran Toronto baseball watchers, this may sound familiar — and it provides the lone cautionary tale right now. In June 1987, the Blue Jays went to New York and pounded the Yankees 11–0, 7–2 and 4–1 as part of an 11–game win streak. Three weeks later, the Yankees marched into Exhibition Stadium and returned the favor — winning 15–14, 4–0 and 6–1. At the time, Toronto and New York were jockeying atop the American League East, but Detroit came on like gangbusters in the second half and famously defeated the Blue Jays in five consecutive games to capture the division title on the final afternoon of the schedule. There was no indication this weekend that the Yankees can pull a similar reversal next Friday–to–Sunday at Rogers Centre… but, you never know.
That’s why they play the games.
The Blue Jays are a season–high nine rungs over .500 at 61–52. The Yankees also have 61 wins, but have lost 49, thus the 1½–game edge.
Right now, however, the Jays may be clicking like at no other time in franchise history. Every aspect of the team is excelling at once. It is almost expected that the top of the batting order — Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista — will generate an early run to give Toronto the lead. Starting pitchers have won 11 decisions since the All–Star break and the much–maligned bullpen has suddenly become nonpareil. The addition of Hawkins, Mark Lowe and Aaron Sanchez has allowed 20–year–old sensation Roberto Osuna to concentrate fully on the closer’s role and he made embarrassingly short work of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley to end Sunday’s game. An inning earlier, Sanchez had gotten Alex Rodriguez to ground into a fielder’s choice and Mark Teixeira to strike out swinging. In 72/3innings of work over the weekend, the bullpen allowed one walk and two hits. Safe to say this is no longer the April–to–July Blue Jays arson squad.
FIRST–BASEMAN JUSTIN SMOAK IS GREETED BY JOSE BAUTISTA AT HOME PLATE ON SATURDAY AFTER HIS GRAND SLAM IN THE SIXTH INNING GAVE TORONTO A 4–0 LEAD.
Team defense is impenetrable, with Donaldson and Tulowitzki snatching everything on the left side of the infield; Ryan Goins and Justin Smoak on the right side. Given Revere’s speed and experience, left field is no longer an adventure with every fly ball, while Kevin Pillar continues to have few peers with his range and quickness in center. Nothing is remotely off–kilter with the Blue Jays, but they probably will falter now and again in their remaining 49 games. How the club responds to a rough patch will determine whether or not it wins the division.
At the moment, however, the four best teams in the American League are Toronto, Kansas City, Houston and the Los Angeles Angels. The Yankees cannot match any of the aforementioned in pitching depth.
LEAVE IT TO AL: Who else other than veteran ABC sportscaster Al Michaels could so brilliantly summarize — in one sentence — the winter of discontent in the National Football League? As he appeared on camera prior to the Hall of Fame game Sunday night in Canton, Ohio (between Pittsburgh and Minnesota), Michaels deadpanned: “How wasthat for an off–season? You didn’t miss a thing… if you watched Court TV.” Michaels and broadcast partner Chris Collinsworth kicked off the 2015 NFL pre–season — the first step toward Super Bowl 50 next Feb. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., home of the San Francisco 49ers… Mark Teixeira looked like a moron late in Sunday’s Blue Jays–Yankees game when he upbraided a fan on the first–base side for bumping him to fetch a souvenir ball. Teixeira dove into the stands to try and grab a pop–foul, but the ball bounced in and out of his glove. A man watching the play to his left bolted for the coveted object and mindlessly came in contact with the New York player. Were Teixeira a 95–year–old grandmother, he wouldn’t have been hurt by the collision. Nonetheless, he took out his frustration on the paying customer in full view of the remaining spectators at Yankee Stadium and those watching on TV in both cities. The fan quickly put hand–to–chest as if to say, “Hey, my fault; I’m sorry” but Teixeira stomped away. A class act, it was not… If the playoffs began today, the Blue Jays would have home–field against the Angels. Toronto has moved into the number–one wild card spot in the American League by percentage points over Los Angeles.
AL MICHAELS DEADPANNING ON ABC FROM CANTON, OHIO AND MARK TEIXEIRA UNLOADING ON A CONTRITE FAN AT YANKEE STADIUM. ABC/SPORTSNET IMAGES
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