TORONTO -- This time of the year in Toronto, fans typically are gearing up for preseason hockey camps and satisfying their need for sports with the Canadian Football League. In other words, the Blue Jays haven’t been relevant this late in the season in a long time.
So when the first-place Orioles arrived Tuesday to open a three-game series between the top two teams in the American League East standings, there was some unusual buzz at the Rogers Centre. Fans lined in front of the ticket counter four hours before the game. A local newspaper’s back-page headline touted the meeting as the "Biggest series ever."
The Orioles, however, wasted no time taking control of the series and removing the energy from the home crowd Tuesday, posting their best offensive output in more than two months in a 9-3 win over the Blue Jays in front of an announced 36,183.
With the win, the Orioles (64-48) took a five-game lead over the Blue Jays in the AL East, and they are now a season-high 16 games over .500. Since dropping two of three in Oakland to begin the second half, the Orioles have won 11 of their last 15 games to take control of the division.
“We’re going to do everything we can to come out and create some space,” said Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, who homered in his third consecutive game, about widening the division lead. “We’ve got guys behind us who are coming after us hard. These are the type of games where you can gain ground and we have to go out and play solid baseball and hopefully we come out on top.”
Head-to-head meetings within the division this time of the year are critical, and with Tuesday’s win, the Orioles were able to distance themselves from the second-place Blue Jays without scoreboard watching.
“If somebody thought we were going to sweep these guys, you’re on some good drugs because that’s not going to happen,” Toronto left-hander Mark Buehrle said. “They’re in first place for a reason.”
The Orioles’ climb to the top of the division has been mostly centered around the team’s strong pitching -- especially during a recent stretch in which the club scored four runs or fewer in 13 of 14 games. But after scoring seven runs in Monday’s rescheduled game in Washington, the Orioles’ nine runs Tuesday were their most since a 9-4 win over the Houston Astros on June 1.
"What’s comforting is when you get the 27th out against that team,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Boy, they’re lethal. It’s a grind all the way. Runs are runs, whether they’re manufactured [or not]. … We’ll take them any way we can get them. Some nights you have to do it a little differently. We’ve had a could good nights offensively after we’ve been struggling a while. They’ve spoiled me and us with the level they’ve been able to [be at] for most of the season. It happens.”
Road tripping to Toronto seems to awaken the Orioles’ offense, which has scored 33 runs in four games here this season. Overall, the Orioles are 19-8 over their last 27 road games, and their .703 road winning percentage over that span is the best in the majors.
Showalter shuffled his batting order to take advantage of favorable matchups against Buehrle. Showalter put designated hitter Delmon Young -- a career .396 hitter against Buehrle -- in the cleanup spot for the second time in the last three games and dropped struggling slugger Chris Davis to the seventh spot.
And an Orioles team that leads the majors with 136 home runs -- one more than Toronto -- received its power supply from the bottom third of the lineup, getting homers from Davis and back-to-back solo shots from No. 8 hitter Caleb Joseph and No. 9 hitter Jonathan Schoop.
Joseph's and Schoop’s blasts led off the fourth inning against Buehrle, who suffered his second-shortest outing of the season, lasting just four innings and giving up four runs and 13 base runners (10 hits and three walks). In six starts against the Orioles over the past two seasons, Buehrle (11-8) is 1-5 with a 6.25 ERA.
Davis, who entered the game hitting just .195, hit a solo home run in the fifth inning, his 18th of the season. It was Davis’ 20th homer against the Blue Jays since the beginning of the 2012 season, and his 23 career homers against Toronto are his most against any opponent.
The back-to-back homers by Joseph and Schoop off Buehrle -- which both came on 2-2 counts -- marked the fourth time this season that the Orioles have hit back-to-back homers and the first time it came from the bottom two spots in the order.
Joseph, whose homer opened a three-run fourth inning, has now hit a home run in his last three games after hitting just three homers in his first 48 games with the Orioles.
After Schoop’s homer put the Orioles up, 3-0, Young drove in Nick Markakis with a two-out RBI single on a ball that bounced past third baseman Danny Valencia. Young also scored the game’s first run in the third inning on J.J. Hardy’s two-out double into the right-center gap. Hardy added an RBI single in the eighth.
Right-hander Bud Norris (9-7) allowed two or fewer runs for the seventh time over his last nine starts, but he was pulled after just 5 1/3 innings (84 pitches) after rolling his ankle in the fifth inning. He gave up two runs and seven hits while striking out six batters and walking two.
“Bud was scuffling a little bit with the ankle,” Showalter said. “It was starting to stiffen up on him a little bit. We just thought it would be safe to get him out of there.”
Norris, who has won six of his last eight decisions, made just one mistake on the night, hanging an 0-1 curveball to Colby Rasmus that he hit over the right-field fence for a two-run homer with two outs in the fourth.
Davis hit his first homer since July 25 off Toronto reliever Aaron Sanchez with a blast to right-center field. Nelson Cruz then broke a 1-for-34 stretch with an RBI single in the sixth off Sanchez and added a sacrifice fly in the eighth. Cruz has 12 RBIs in four games in Toronto this season.
Jose Bautista represented the tying run when he came to the plate for the Blue Jays (60-54) with no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
But right-hander Tommy Hunter limited the damage to just one run, holding Bautista to a sacrifice fly to right field and inducing an inning-ending double play from Dioner Navarro. The Orioles then went on to score three more runs in the top of the eighth to open up the game.
That run in the seventh, charged to left-hander Brian Matusz, was the only run the Orioles bullpen allowed in 3 2/3 innings Tuesday.
“That was huge,” Davis said of getting out of the seventh. “They had multiple opportunities to get back in the game and the bullpen was up to task in minimizing the damage, and that’s what we expect out of those guys.”