TORONTO — The Yankees passed with flying colors their most recent biggest-series-of-the-year test, sweeping the Red Sox at Fenway Park over the weekend to reclaim the American League’s top wild-card spot.
Naturally, another biggest-series-of-the-year, this one starting Tuesday night against the Blue Jays' Hyun Jin Ryu.
"I think it’s going to be another playoff atmosphere, kind of like these past three games here in Boston," said Aaron Judge, whose team has a one-game lead over the Red Sox and a two-game lead over the Blue Jays with six to play. "They’re a great young team. They took it to us back in New York and they’re fighting, just like us, for that playoff spot, so it’s going to be a fun atmosphere and some fun games."
When the Yankees extended their winning streak to 13 games on Aug. 27, they owned a 9 1/2-game lead over the Blue Jays, but the Jays gained 11 games on them in the next 23 days by going 18-4 to the Yankees' 7-15. That left the Yankees 1 1/2 games behind Toronto, but their current six-game winning streak has pushed them ahead of the Blue Jays, who are coming off a disappointing four-game split against the Twins in Minneapolis that took them out of playoff position.
The Blue Jays (87-69) are 10-6 against the Yankees (89-67), including a four-game sweep at the Stadium from Sept. 6-9 near the end of a 2-11 stretch for the Yankees. Toronto hit 11 home runs in the series. It was the first time since 1908 that the Yankees were swept in a four-game series at home without leading in any of the games.
The Yankees did sweep the Blue Jays on the road June 15-17 at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, the home of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons and Toronto’s home during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season because of international travel issues caused by the pandemic. They played their 2021 home games at their spring training home in Dunedin, Florida, until late May, then moved to Buffalo before being given permission to return to Rogers Centre on July 30.
Just in time for this Yankees series, the government-allowed capacity at Rogers Centre has been bumped to 30,000 from 15,000. That news made longtime Yankee Brett Gardner smile.
"Special," Gardner said of Rogers Centre when it’s full, or close to full. "I mean, obviously, very, very loud. A place that’s a lot of fun to play. We haven’t been there in two years, so it’ll be fun to go back there. We’ve played a lot of high-energy games there over the last several years and it’s a place that we love to play. And like I said, we look forward to the challenge. They’ve got a really, really good team and these games are just as important as the ones we just played this weekend. So hopefully we continue to play well."
The Blue Jays, even with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. questionable going into the Yankees series after receiving stitches in his throwing hand in Minneapolis, have one of the most potent offenses in baseball, led by Vlad Guerrero Jr.
The 22-year-old, hitting .315 with 46 homers, 105 RBIs and a 1.005 OPS, would be a near-lock for AL MVP honors if not for the season the Angels' Shohei Ohtani is having. Guerrero entered Monday leading the AL in OPS, first in hits (183), tied for first in homers with the Royals’ Salvador Perez, tied for second in batting average with Houston’s Michael Brantley and seventh in RBIs.
"MVP," Judge said. "Any guy that’s about to [possibly] win a Triple Crown I feel like is MVP. It’s been pretty impressive. I remember talking with some of the guys in spring training, he had a pretty impressive spring training, and I said, ‘Man, this kid is about to go off,’ and sure enough, he did. Just consistent at-bats. I know a lot of guys on that team have been having really good years, but he’s the separator for them, I think."
The Blue Jays hope a close-to-capacity Rogers Centre can be a separator against the Yankees, who in good years and not-as-good years the last two decades have experienced their share of difficulties in the building.
"We’re going to play the big dogs, and we’re going to play them at home in front of 30,000 fans," Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen told the Toronto media via Zoom. "I think that’s a big thing, a huge thing, having those fans and being in Toronto. It’s going to be everything for us."
W-L PCT GB
Yankees 89-67 .571 +1
Boston 88-68 .564 —
Toronto 87-69 .558 1
*Seattle 86-70 .551 2
*Oakland 85-71 .545 3
*Late game not included