TORONTO -- While the rest of the pretenders continue their September slumber, the Toronto Blue Jays are waltzing to a third straight division title.
And the natives on this side of the border are ready for a clinching party at home. That became more of a reality last night as the Blue Jays all but officially knocked the New York Yankees from the American League East race with a 7-3 victory.
With the Orioles also edging closer to elimination with a 2-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers, the Blue Jays reduced their magic number to three. Any combination of losses by the second-place team, whether the Yankees or Orioles, and wins by the Blue Jays equaling three will give Toronto the title.
The chances of that happening this weekend improved significantly last night. The Blue Jays still have to complete a sweep of their three-game series against the Yankees and hope the Orioles lose one of their two remaining games against the Tigers.
But whether it happens tomorrow, when the Blue Jays play their final home game, is insignificant. Plans for the clinching are in the final stages, and only the site is to be determined.
Last night, the Blue Jays backed up another strong performance by Juan Guzman with 13 hits to win for the 11th time in their past 12 games. The loss was the Yankees' fourth in a row and their sixth in the past eight games. They still hold a half-game lead over the Orioles.
Guzman (14-3), who hasn't lost since dropping a 7-3 decision to the Chicago White Sox on July 20, allowed only six hits and two runs before leaving with a 7-2 lead after seven innings. Although he hasn't been noted as a particularly durable pitcher, it was the eighth straight start in which Guzman has pitched at least seven innings.
On the heels of Dave Stewart's strong outing, also seven innings, against the Boston Red Sox the night before, the Blue Jays' pitching suddenly appears stronger than at any time of the year. "Everything seems to be coming together at just the right time," said Guzman, who won his seventh straight decision. "We're getting great pitching and a lot of offense."
Guzman, who went into the game with a 6.00 ERA (eight runs in 12 1/3 innings) in two previous starts against the Yankees this season, spent extra time in preparation for this one.
"I started a couple of days ago looking at the video to see what pitches worked against them and what ones didn't," said Guzman.
"I spent more time preparing than I have for the others because this was a big game for us," said Guzman. "We've been looking forward to this series for a long time -- this is like the playoffs for us."
That, of course, is a not-so-slight exaggeration because the Blue Jays are comfortably atop the AL East. The win put the Blue Jays 25 games over .500 (89-64) for the first time this year. They are now 6 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees, their biggest lead of the season.
Ex-teammate Jimmy Key became the most recent victim of the Blue Jays' revitalized attack. Devon White led the barrage with ,, four hits, but it was Rickey Henderson and Pat Borders who did most of the damage.
Henderson's participation, a soft double and a hefty home run, was hardly unexpected. He is a .412 (35-for-85) hitter lifetime against the veteran left-hander and his 21st homer of the year in the third inning was the ninth he has hit off Key.
"I don't know what it is," said Henderson, "but I think every pitcher has somebody who dominates him. Jimmy is just one of the pitchers I've had some success against. I wish there were a few more."
Henderson has not been the offensive force expected since being obtained from the Oakland A's July 31, but he says he hasn't been frustrated. "I think most of the players understand that my hands have been hurting," he said.
Key (17-6) gave up eight hits and four runs in six innings. A two-run, two-out single by Borders in the fourth was the game's key hit.
Borders, who caught many of Key's wins the past few years with the Blue Jays, said that familiarity had nothing to do with the ball he hit up the middle.
"He comes at you in so many different ways that you can't really look for anything from him," said Borders. "The best thing to do is stay back and try to go the other way."
That almost sounds like the same formula being followed by the teams closest to the Blue Jays -- stay back and go the other way. Both the Yankees (2 1/2 games) and the Orioles (two games) are much closer to the fourth-place Red Sox than they are to the Blue Jays.