BALTIMORE — Buckets of champagne were ready, just sitting in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards. The Toronto Blue Jays celebrated clinching the American League East on the field but had to wait to complete a doubleheader before popping bottles.
The franchise waited 22 years for this. What were another few hours?
Two months of spectacular baseball culminated in a 15-2 rout of the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday afternoon, ending decades of frustration for fans and rewarding the Blue Jays’ organization for a remarkable turnaround.
“I wake up every day with a huge grin on my face. I wake up every day and it doesn’t feel real,” pitcher Marcus Stroman said. “Taking the field every day with Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Mark Buehrle, it’s nuts to me.”
The Blue Jays, who fell 8-1 in the second game of the doubleheader, were nuts to watch for much of the season but more specifically since July 29, when Tulowitzki joined the lineup amid a flurry of bountiful deadline trades. They went 42-14 since, surging past the New York Yankees before finally wrapping up the division in the first game of a doubleheader against the Orioles.
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, which they had already clinched last weekend.
“It’s been a really long time since this city has been to the playoffs, so to do it for the city of Toronto and to do it with this group of guys, it’s been a dream come true,” Stroman said.
In late July, any kind of post-season appearance would have been welcomed, before general manager Alex Anthopoulos went all-in, trading for an ace in Price, an all-star shortstop in Tulowitzki, a speedy outfielder in Ben Revere and bullpen help in relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe at the deadline.
“We didn’t even look that far. We just said, ‘Look, we’re a game or two out of a wild-card spot, we feel like we have a really good team that’s underachieved to this point,”’ Anthopoulos said. “We thought we had a shot, no doubt about it.”
Those moves worked like a charm, making the Blue Jays’ 50-51 record in late July feel like a distant memory. 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 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. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Justin Smoak each hit home runs, and every player in the lineup registered a hit, including Ryan Goins, who registered a career-high five.
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.
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.
“I think home field for us with the environment that we have now at that stadium … to have a dome, playing conditions, all that, I think it’s a big advantage,” Anthopoulos said. “We’d love to get it.”