Formidable test begins for Yanks in Toronto

Bombers get 1st look at team that put damper on 2015's 2nd half

Formidable test begins for Yanks in Toronto

TORONTO -- Last season, first place in the American League East belonged to the Yankees as late as Aug. 22, after which point the surging Blue Jays were just too much to hold off. Reclaiming the division from that squad and their powerhouse lineup could be the Bombers' greatest challenge of 2016.

Brian McCann recognizes the difficulty of navigating the heart of a batting order that features 2015 AL MVP Award winner Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, and the catcher figures to have his work cut out for him under the dome at Rogers Centre this week.

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"They're tough from top to bottom," McCann said. "They're getting contributions all the way up and down their order. You've got to execute."

Given their offensive difficulties in the second half, particularly against left-handed pitching, it could be easy to forget that the Yankees outscored all but one team in 2015 -- part of the reason that they enjoyed a seven-game division lead at the close of business on July 28.

Of course, the only team to bring more runners around the bases was Toronto (891), as the Blue Jays zoomed past the Yanks (794) en route to ending their 22-year playoff drought. Toronto enjoyed a 13-6 record against New York, which ended the year six games back.

"What was it like? Well, it wasn't fun," shortstop Didi Gregorius said. "We were losing. It wasn't fun for us. They play the game the right way, and beating everybody. I think they were No. 1 last year in runs scored and all that stuff. But last year is last year. We've got to look forward to next year and hopefully we play better than them."

It was hardly a coincidence that Tulowitzki cleared Canadian customs on July 29, part of a Trade Deadline spree that included the additions of David Price, Mark Lowe and Ben Revere. The Yankees stood pat, unwilling to part with top prospects like Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo and Luis Severino.

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"You add Price to that rotation, that was the move that kind of pushed them over the top," McCann said. "Getting Tulo -- he's one of the better players in the game. They went all in, and they made the playoffs."

As far as the Yanks are concerned, Price is a headache for another day, now calling Fenway Park home after signing a seven-year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox.

Instead, they'll look for pitches to hit from Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and ace-in-training Marcus Stroman, while McCann calls signs that he hopes can quiet a lineup that can go head to head with any.

"Look around our division -- everyone is deep," McCann said. "Every lineup is deep in our division. It's a new year. They're tough, but there are a lot of other tough teams in our division as well."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that while some prognosticators have picked the Blue Jays to again win the division, the games are never played on paper. He said that there is "some curiosity" to see how his team will match up.

"They're basically the same team," Girardi said. "David Price is not there now, but Stroman will be there the whole year, and we didn't see a lot of him last year. Obviously they're very talented and they swing the bats extremely well. To me, you've got to stay away from giving that team extra outs, because if you do, they're going to kill you."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.