Playoff atmosphere returning like it's 2015

Playoff atmosphere returning like it's 2015

TORONTO -- The atmosphere, the opponent and a first-place Blue Jays team. It's starting to feel like 2015 all over again.

The Blue Jays are sitting alone atop the standings in the American League East for the first time since April 4 following a 9-1 victory over the Orioles on Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre.

In the dying moments of the game, large portions of the 47,305 fans in attendance rose to their feet and started chanting "first place" over and over again. The fact that it came against a division rival seemed to make the moment that much sweeter.

"This late in the season, when you're playing for something such as first place, against a team that we consider a bit of a rivalry, it has been unbelievable," said Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar, who went 2-for-4 with four RBIs. "The atmosphere definitely feels like postseason. We're approaching these games like postseason games, and we've been playing pretty good."

The road to get to this point hasn't exactly been easy. Toronto won its first two games to begin the season in first place, but after that, it was the Red Sox and Orioles who took over. Toronto trailed by as many as seven games earlier this year, and even by the end of June, the deficit was 5 1/2.

The Blue Jays experienced something similar last year -- except in 2015 -- the turnaround happened when the club made a series of major moves prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline. This season, Toronto used the entire month of July as a jumping-off point, and in a year when the club is not expected to make a major splash through trades, the Blue Jays are doing it with the same core intact.

Toronto is 16-6 over its last 22 games and has gone 6-2-1 over its previous nine series. The strong record against a divisional opponent goes back even further than that with a 15-5 mark vs. the AL East since May 25 with series victories in all but one of the seven that have been played during that span.

"So many guys came up this offseason and Spring Training and were [saying] 'it's just another level,'" said lefty J.A. Happ, who re-joined the Blue Jays this offseason after spending last year in Seattle and Pittsburgh. "It's what we've been waiting for, and to start to experience that, obviously playing the Orioles with a huge series here, that's as fun as it gets right there."

Happ's impressive outing

Last year, prior to the arrival of David Price at the end of July, the Blue Jays survived because of an offense that was by far and away the best in the Major Leagues. This season, it was the performance of the starting rotation that helped the club get through a sluggish first two months from the lineup.

The Blue Jays lead the AL with 66 quality starts on the season, rank first in innings at 658, second with a 3.75 ERA and second with a 1.20 WHIP. Add in an offense that is now scoring 5.8 runs per game since June 1, and the Blue Jays have found their recipe for success.

Saturday marked a high point in the season for the Blue Jays, but there is still a long road ahead. Manager John Gibbons made it pretty clear after the victory over Baltimore that this team is not about to get carried away with the recent run of success.

"No," Gibbons said when asked if the game brought back any memories from 2015. "But you're exactly right, there's two months left."

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.