AL East clinched, Blue Jays balance rest and desire for home-field advantage

BALTIMORE — When the cigar smoke settled from a wild celebration after clinching the American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays began planning for the playoffs.

“We think we have more ahead of us,” manager John Gibbons said. “We really do.”

Oddsmakers have made the Blue Jays favourites to win the World Series. They’d still like to assure themselves home-field advantage throughout the post-season, but the current tact is to give top players as much rest as possible.

Toronto trotted out a lineup with no regulars again Thursday in a rain-delayed 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. The magic number to clinch the top seed in the American League is three, and the half-game lead over the Kansas City Royals also includes the fact that the Blue Jays own the tiebreaker.

That’s still the goal, but the club decided to skip David Price’s next start to give him extra rest before Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Oct. 8.

“It’s pretty simple: He’s had a long season and hopefully he makes five, six starts, however long the post-season runs,” Gibbons said Thursday evening. “It’s really a no-brainer to me. What good’s it going to accomplish to make one more start?”

Price is 18-5 with a league-best 2.45 earned-run average and could win the Cy Young Award. But he has also thrown 220 1/3 innings this season, so rest took precedence.

“They wanted me to throw just because of personal awards and I could care less about those,” Price said. “It’s that point in the season if you can get an extra couple days, you’ll take it.”

Price is 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA with six or more days of rest after a start during his major-league career. That’s his highest ERA of any amount of rest, but after pitching in the final days of the season each of the past two years he doesn’t mind.

“We have a plan and I like it,” Price said. “I’m going to throw a lot of (batting practice). It’s still pitching.”

One of Price’s duties will be to throw BP to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who hasn’t played since Sept. 12 with a cracked shoulder blade. Tulowitzki is expected to play at some point during the upcoming series at the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite fielding a lineup without any regulars in the second half of a doubleheader Wednesday and then again Thursday to give the regular starters a rest, home-field advantage is still something the Blue Jays care about. It’s not the only thing they care about.

“My job’s to take care of these guys, make sure they’re ready to go when it comes, not what other people think,” Gibbons said. “Yeah, we’d love to win it. But I’ve got to do what’s best for these guys not what some bozos out there in fantasyland thinks.”

The Blue Jays opted for mostly rest Thursday but worked in some important players in what amounted to early October spring training. Most notably, reliever Aaron Sanchez pitched a perfect inning of relief in his first work since Sunday.

Toronto begins a three-game series, the final one of the regular season, on Friday at Tampa Bay. Securing home-field advantage means something because Rogers Centre is a place the Blue Jays feel can be intimidating for opponents.

“Home field for us with the environment we have at that stadium … everybody across the league is talking about what an unbelievable environment it is, to have a dome, playing conditions, all that, I think it’s a big advantage for us,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Wednesday.

Rogers Centre was sold out for 20 of the final 21 home games of the regular season, and ace Price remarked on the day he debuted for Toronto that he had never pitched in an atmosphere like that before. Tickets for the AL Division Series sold out in minutes, and fans who have waited 22 years for playoff baseball are expected to create quite the environment.

With Price out of the rotation for the final series of the regular season, Mark Buehrle is set to pitch Friday and Marco Estrada on Saturday. Gibbons said he’d probably go back to Drew Hutchison on Sunday after the right-hander threw just 27 pitches in one inning against the Orioles before the rain came.

Clinching the AL’s top seed would mean facing the winner of the wild-card game in the first round. The New York Yankees will likely host either the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels or Minnesota Twins in that one-game playoff Tuesday.

If the Royals finish with a better record, the Blue Jays would very likely face the Texas Rangers, who are close to wrapping up the AL West. Like the Blue Jays, Texas got an ace in late July in Cole Hamels and went on a roll, winning 36 of 56 games since the trade deadline.

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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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