A critical road sweep over a division rival has the Toronto Blue Jays back in the right direction. Now the challenge will be to cool down the hottest team in baseball.
The Oakland Athletics head to Rogers Centre for this three-game series having won five consecutive games and nine times in their last 10 contests, and boast a major-league best 14-2 record in the month of July. The surge has placed the surprising club right in the thick of the American League playoff race, with the A's currently tied with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for the circuit's two wild card berths.
Oakland proved its validity by winning all four matchups with the powerful New York Yankees, owners of the best record in the majors, this past weekend. The Athletics completed the sweep with a stirring rally on Sunday, fighting back from an early four-run deficit to down the Bronx Bombers by a 5-4 score in 12 innings.
Seth Smith sent the game into additional frames with a one-out solo homer off Yankees closer Rafael Soriano in the bottom of the ninth, and prevailed in the 12th when Derek Norris singled and later came around on Coco Crisp's two-out base hit to right.
The comeback gave Oakland its MLB-leading 11th walk-off victory of the season.
"We always feel like we have a chance to win," Crisp said.
Toronto fell back in the pack after losing three straight times to the Yankees in New York last week, but rebounded strongly by outscoring Boston by a 28-11 margin in a three-game sweep at Fenway Park this past weekend. The effort placed the Blue Jays three games behind both the A's and Angels for the AL's two Wild Card berths.
Even without slugger Jose Bautista, placed on the disabled list a week ago with a wrist injury, Toronto had its bats working in Sunday's finale. The Blue Jays rocked Boston starter Jon Lester for nine runs in the first two innings and pounded out 18 hits -- including four homers -- in a 15-7 rout.
Brett Lawrie began the onslaught with a leadoff homer in the top of the first, igniting a five-run opening inning for Toronto. The Jays scored four more times in the second, with J.P. Arencibia belting a three-run homer and Rajai Davis following with a solo shot to give the team a 9-3 lead.
"I think the boys set the tone early," said outfielder Travis Snider, who went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBI on the day. "First pitch of the game, Lawrie comes out swinging, then J.P. and the rest of the at-bats we put together against a good pitcher like Lester."
Arencibia knocked in four runs in all, while Davis and Yunel Escobar each finished 3-for-4 in the win.
The Blue Jays may find offense harder to come by in this series, as Oakland leads the AL with a 3.37 team earned run average. Travis Blackley has contributed to that strong number by posting a 2.86 ERA in eight starts and four relief appearances since joining the club in mid-May, and gets the call for the A's this evening.
Blackley, claimed off waivers from San Francisco earlier this season, last took the hill on Wednesday and allowed three runs in a 5 1/3-inning no- decision against Texas, but has gone 2-0 with a 2.23 ERA over his last six appearances (5 starts).
The native Australian, who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2007 prior to being called up by the Giants in May, has faced the Blue Jays just one time previously. That came all the way back in 2004 while with Seattle, with the left-hander surrendering six runs (5 earned) in five innings to take the loss.
Toronto will counter with the struggling Brett Cecil, who enters tonight's tilt with a 2-2 record and a 6.34 ERA in six starts since being called up from Triple A in mid-June. The left-hander is coming off a decent performance, however, having held the Yankees to three runs on six hits over six innings despite receiving a loss on July 17.
Cecil, a 15-game winner for the Blue Jays in 2010, has compiled a 2-2 record with a 2.79 ERA in four career starts against Oakland.
These teams split a brief two-game set in Oakland from May 8-9, as well as 10 overall meetings last season. The A's have won in three of their last four visits to the Rogers Centre, however.