TORONTO – The Blue Jays are hoping a return to Rogers Centre will help them bounce back after a three-game sweep in New York knocked Toronto out of first place in the American League East.
The division race is the tightest in Major League Baseball. Toronto, Baltimore and the Yankees are all within striking distance of the first-place Boston Red Sox and there are several divisional games to come down the stretch.
Here’s a look at five things to watch as the Blue Jays make their playoff push:
The Blue Jays have lined up their best starters for a key three-game series with the Boston Red Sox this weekend.
Marco Estrada (8-7, 3.56 earned-run average) gets the nod in Friday night’s opener. Left-hander J.A. Happ (17-4, 3.34) will start Saturday and Aaron Sanchez (13-2, 2.92) is on tap Sunday.
Toronto enters the series in second place in the East, one game behind the Red Sox. In the wild-card race, the Blue Jays and Orioles currently hold the two spots but several teams are close behind.
Detroit is one game behind Baltimore and two games behind Toronto. Houston, New York, Kansas City and Seattle are also in the mix.
Toronto had trouble cashing in runners earlier this week in New York. Improvement will be needed this weekend against Boston, a team with arguably the best offence in the major leagues.
The Blue Jays cashed in only six of 28 runners in scoring position during the three-game series in the Bronx.
READ MORE: Yankees blank Blue Jays to complete three-game sweep
Toronto was 0-for-8 in a 2-0 loss on Wednesday night.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, lead the majors in runs (764), hits (1,397), team batting average (.286), on-base percentage (.351), slugging percentage (.467) and OPS (.817) entering Thursday’s games.
With the exception of a seven-game West Coast road trip, Toronto will only play East division opponents the rest of the way.
After this weekend’s Boston series, the Tampa Bay Rays will close out the six-game homestand at Rogers Centre.
Following that, the Blue Jays will visit a pair of middling West Division teams in the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners before closing out the home schedule with four games against the Yankees and three games with the Orioles.
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Then it’s off to Fenway Park on Sept. 30 for a three-game season-ending set with the Red Sox.
Boston will play all 23 of its remaining games against East opponents while Baltimore will play 17 of its 23 games against division rivals.
It took 93 wins for the Blue Jays to win the East last year and a number close to that will likely be needed to claim the division title this season.
Toronto enters Friday’s game against Boston with a 77-62 mark. To get to 93 victories, the Blue Jays would need to close out the campaign on a 16-7 run (a .696 winning percentage).
However, it’s possible that 90 wins could be enough since there are so many intradivision matchups on the schedule. That would require a 13-10 (.565) record the rest of the way.
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As for the two wild-card spots, Houston and New York qualified last year with 86 and 87 wins, respectively. A 9-14 (.391) mark from here would get Toronto to 86 victories.
According to Fangraphs, the Blue Jays entered Thursday’s games with an 80.6 per cent chance of returning to the post-season with a 32.7 per cent chance of winning the East and a 47.9 per cent chance of claiming a wild-card spot.
SPOILED IN SEPTEMBER
The 2015 edition of the Blue Jays went on a second-half surge after then-GM Alex Anthopoulos made a series of deals before the trade deadline that gave the team a jolt.
Toronto had a 51-51 record in late July last year before going a remarkable 42-18 run en route to their first division title since 1993.
The core of the team’s offence returned this year while Happ and Sanchez have emerged as key starters in a rotation that former ace David Price anchored down the stretch.
Price’s off-season departure for Boston as a free agent stung many Toronto fans. He’ll likely be on the mound in that season-ending series between the Red Sox and Blue Jays in what should be as close to playoff baseball as the regular season can get.