AL East clinched, Blue Jays can now earn home-field advantage through playoffs

BALTIMORE — When the cigar smoke settled from a wild celebration after clinching the American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays were left with more work to do.

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

Gibbons is talking about the playoffs, where oddsmakers have made the Blue Jays World Series favourites. But before that, there’s the matter of trying to assure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

After losing 6-4 in their rain-delayed series finale against the Baltimore Orioles, the Blue Jays have a magic number of three to clinch the top seed in the American League. They started the day with a one-game lead on the Kansas City Royals but Toronto owns the tiebreaker, so if the teams finish with an even record, the Blue Jays take it.

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 want.

“We’d love to get it, we’re certainly going to fight for it, but you do balance it out with having to give guys rest,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said.

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,” Anthopoulos said.

Rogers Centre was sold out for 20 of the final 21 home games of the regular season, and ace David 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.

Price won’t get a chance to pitch again until Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday. The Blue Jays opted to hold him out of his scheduled start in Baltimore and ultimately decided to give him rest rather than having him pitch against the Rays.

Mark Buehrle is set to pitch Friday and Marco Estrada on Saturday. Toronto’s starter for Sunday is to be determined, though if home-field advantage is assured by then, it could be any pitcher on the 40-man roster.

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.

Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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