Marty Noble

Blue Jays are ascending in the East

Blue Jays are ascending in the East

NEW YORK -- Two years after Buddy Bell completed his four-year hitch as the Royals' manager, John Gibbons became a bench coach for the same team. And he heard the stories; they were good ones. One that stuck with him was this pronouncement from Bell: "You know, sometimes I'd like to have a team I didn't have to manage so much."

Gibbons chuckled and rose from behind his desk as he shared that anecdote and prepared for the challenge of managing the Blue Jays in the final episode of their three-game series, a 2-0 win at Yankee Stadium. "I've got one now," he said.

That was 11:55 a.m. on Sunday, and the most critical parts of Gibbons' workday were just about done. He had filled out the lineup card with a series of sluggers and formidable bats, checked on the health of his players -- the middle finger on Edwin Encarnacion's left hand was hurting -- and chatted with appropriate personnel.

Some four hours later, he had watched his Blue Jays finish their sweep of the American League East-leading Yankees.

"Just as we drew it up," he said.

These days, Gibbons leaves the signs for steals, the hit-and-run and sacrifice bunts in a jar by the door and lets his counterparts and the descendents of John McGraw and Gene Mauch manage. Gibbons essentially is done the instant he signs his card.

It was a beautiful afternoon in the Bronx, so he took in a game that his team took from an opponent it's chasing -- and, from all indications, catching.

The Blue Jays' deficit in the AL East standings stands today at 1 1/2 games, a cause for angst among folks who dream in pinstripes. On July 28 the team from the north was decidedly south of the Yankees -- in third place, eight games behind. The Yankees aren't necessarily in cataclysmic descent, but rather the Jays, with a power play the Maple Leafs envy, are in astounding ascent, having won eight straight games and 12 of 15.

All that is well and good, but what makes this scenario so eye-catching is the way the Blue Jays handled the Yankees this weekend. Other pursuing contenders in other seasons have swept series from other first-place teams in August and September. The Yankees' dismantling of the Red Sox in 1978, a four-game stretch in which they outscored Boston, 42-9, at Fenway -- was no more emphatic than the Blue Jays' 2-1, 6-0, 2-0 straight-set rip of the team that had led the division since July 3.

For most of 72 hours, Toronto was the superior team.

The Blue Jays steamrolled the Yankees, took them out of their game. The batting order of the division leaders performed as if it had been fitted for nine straitjackets. The Blue Jays and Yankees, who rank first and second in the AL in runs, respectively, hardly mashed in 28 innings, but the Blue Jays did what they have done since Day 1 of the 2015 season -- slugged.

Although their run output in the series was below average, they did hit six home runs in a stadium that heavily favors left-handed hitters. Five were the results of right-handed swings by their primary bats, including two -- one on Sunday -- by Josh Donaldson, the strongest MVP candidate this side of Anaheim.

The one that wasn't launched by a right-handed bat was the series crusher, Justin Smoak's grand slam on Saturday.

Smoak's grand slam

Good pitching stops good hitting, and the Yankees didn't pitch poorly. Remove Smoak's slam off Ivan Nova, and the Yankees would have surrendered six runs in the three games ... and been swept, nonetheless. Moreover, the Jays did enough to beat Masahiro Tanaka, the sidebar story to the sweep.

Was the Blue Jays' pitching that good, or were the Yankees off balance for three games after averaging seven runs per for 17 games (12 victories)? Marco Estrada, a right-handed fly-ball pitcher who allowed the most home runs (29) in the National League last season, didn't allow the Yankees to excite the gathered 42,000 on Sunday in a ballpark that would make Lefty Gomez sweat.

So it seemed it was the Blue Jays who supported baseball's most telling axiom -- good pitching stops … -- beginning with R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball on Friday night. Dickey brought his confounding pitch to the Stadium two nights after Steven Wright of the Red Sox had thrown eight wrinkled innings at the Yankees. The Yankees had scored 40 runs in four games before Wright gave them a case of the butterflies.

Dickey's strong outing

"One of us can mess you up," Dickey said. "You see two of us in three games … It can cause problems. Maybe I benefited from [Wright]. I don't know. But I'm sure the Yankees weren't delighted to face me after they faced him."

The Yankees play in Toronto next weekend, and Gibbons already is pondering using Dickey on Sunday on short rest. The knuckleballer has pitched with short rest several times this season, and by next Sunday morning, who knows how the standings will look?

"I know how we'd like 'em to look," Dickey said.

Although the Jays now are permitted some pie-in-the-sky thinking, they are being wisely tactful about the race they have created since the All-Star break.

"The Yankees could run off 10 of 12. And who'd be surprised?" Gibbons said. "We're closer. But we haven't done anything but excite our fans."

"We feel a little different, yeah," Dickey said. "The vernacular in the clubhouse has changed since the break. The tone is different. No one's complaining about the traffic or the postgame spread. We have more important things on our minds now. And, really, what we did here this weekend … It's not the end. It's not like we've arrived."

But they seem to be on their way. Don't they?

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.