TORONTO — Brett Cecil called them the three biggest outs of his big-league career.
Manager John Gibbons said if the season goes the way the Blue Jays hope it does, the eighth inning that Cecil salvaged Monday night may be the frame they look back on as being paramount.
Cecil came up with three huge strikeouts to help preserve David Price’s strong start as Toronto kicked off a big three-game series against New York with a 4-2 victory at Rogers Centre.
“He’s one of the better relievers in baseball,” said Gibbons. “He was an all-star two years ago. There’s a reason.”
Price was in top form over seven shutout innings of a series opener that had a distinct playoff atmosphere. He allowed just two hits and retired the final 14 batters he faced.
With the left-hander’s pitch count running high, Gibbons turned to reliever Aaron Sanchez to start the eighth inning but a walk and a single made his night a short one.
Cecil came on and allowed an RBI single to Jacoby Ellsbury before fanning the meat of the Yankees’ order — Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann — as the sellout crowd of 47,648 roared its approval.
“That was very cool,” Price said. “He did a great job. Those are some of the biggest outs he’s recorded since he’s been in the big leagues. That was good for him.”
The victory padded Toronto’s lead on New York in the American League East race to 3 1/2 games. The Blue Jays also moved within 1 1/2 games of the idle Kansas City Royals in the race for the top seed in the American League.
Price was staked to an early three-run lead and was only really tested in the third inning when the Yankees loaded the bases with one out. He responded by fanning Rodriguez and getting McCann to fly out.
He threw 114 pitches on the night, 87 of them for strikes.
“Definitely frustrating,” said McCann. “(Price) made his pitches when he had to. He was good tonight. He was working both sides of the plate, cutting it and sinking it to both sides and keeping guys off balance.”
Price improved to 17-5 on the season and is 8-1 since the Blue Jays acquired him in a mid-season trade with the Detroit Tigers.
“What can you say really?” said Gibbons. “That was the whole idea behind getting him. Trades don’t always work out right. This one has worked out right.”
Roberto Osuna gave up a solo homer to Greg Bird in the ninth before picking up his 17th save. Toronto has a sparkling 36-14 record since July 27.
“We had our chance in the eighth,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “We weren’t able to get it done.”
New York starter Adam Warren (6-7) struggled through a 35-pitch first inning. Ben Revere singled, Josh Donaldson was grazed by a pitch and Jose Bautista found a hole up the middle to bring Revere home with the game’s first run.
A wild pitch moved Donaldson and Bautista into scoring position and an Edwin Encarnacion grounder was enough to score Donaldson. Bautista came across after Justin Smoak lashed a double over the head of Yankees right-fielder Carlos Beltran.
The Blue Jays added an insurance run in the seventh inning when Toronto native Russell Martin brought Donaldson home with a sacrifice fly.
Price left the game earlier in the frame to a standing ovation. He acknowledged the crowd with a clap of his own before being congratulated by his teammates in the dugout.
“That’s a very good team, we all know that,” Price said of the Yankees. “That’s the most storied franchise in all of sports. So beating those guys is always fun. It’s always tough … they always put together quality at-bats, they never give at-bats away.