BALTIMORE — They’re birds of a feather, yet they won’t flock together.
As a matter of fact, they are getting aggressively territorial. Prepare for a lot of chirping in the American League wildcard cage between the Blue Jays and Orioles. The two teams began a 15-game summer showdown here Monday, to be contested over the closing 54 dates on the schedule.
They were some of the two hottest AL teams since the all-star break, each with records of 10-6. And both came into this series in a fighting mood, Toronto splitting a series with Minnesota, the upstart O’s wrapping theirs against the Pirates, with each team’s game Sunday ending with a bang in controversial home plate tags that were overturned.
“The more you see (the same) people, the more familiar — and the more competitive — it gets,” Toronto manager John Schneider said. “Execution will be big. When you have a team you’re familiar with and you’ll play them quite a bit, the game plan is the game plan.
“You make adjustments here and there, but execution will be big.”
The Orioles were off the radar the past couple of years, but the surge that began around the July 4 holiday has carried them into the playoff picture. They trail the Jays by a few games, but are in range of Seattle and Tampa Bay, with the same record of 56-52 as Cleveland entering play Monday.
“The schedule-maker is over-doing it,” mused Orioles manager Brandon Hyde of the glut of his team’s games versus Toronto. “They’re pretty balanced in that they have a little bit of power, speed, superstars in the middle … its’ a really, really good team.
“We have to pitch really carefully (which) I thought we did really well in the first series in Toronto (winning two of three, the loss in extra innings).”
The O’s drew 40,000 in one game during the Pittsburgh series, in which Hyde proudly pointed out the spectators came to cheer loudly for his team instead of a famous opponent.
“Any time you are playing games against teams ahead of you, they’re important,” Hyde added. “That’s not to take away anything from (other teams). But we’re starting to come into the middle of August and we’re in it. We just want to play well down the stretch, whoever we’re against.
“The standings are important, but at the same time you don’t want to put any more pressure, you want to stay loose. I think we’ve done that to this point.”
This is the Jays’ first look at Camden Yards since the left field wall was pushed back 26.5 feet and made six feet higher. The 398-foot distance marker is imposing.
“It’s different,” Schneider agreed. “This went from being kind of a bandbox to one where you have to (connect) to get it out there. It looks far. A homer will still be a homer, but some homers will now be fly balls.
“You have to figure it out. It won’t be the Camden we’re used to.”
The two managers strategized before Monday’s game. With left-hander Yusei Kikuchi starting for Toronto, Hyde stacked righthand batters, also knowing the injury to Tim Mayza on Saturday leaves Schneider without a lefty in his bullpen.
Schneider had versatile Whit Merrifield batting leadoff, after dropping him towards the end of the Minnesota series to give the bottom of the order some pop.
“In the short time he’s been here, you can see how valuable Whit is, being able to bounce him from the outfield to the infield, pinch-hit, pinch-run. Yesterday’s (winning run) was obviously huge.”
Hyde was still waiting for an explanation about why a tagout by his catcher, Robinson Chirinos, was overruled by replay when he stopped Pittsburgh’s Greg Allen at the plate on Sunday, similar to what happened between Twins catcher Gary Sanchez and runner Merrifield a time zone away. Hyde did not believe Chirinos had blocked the runner’s path and was ejected, though Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli’s rant was much more colourful.
“Every game is big and when you hit August, everything seems to count a little bit more,” said Schneider. “Kind of ironic, those type of plays happening (same day) but it’s fun.”
A combination of the schedule-maker’s whims and an opening-week series displaced by the labour dispute resulted in 15 late-season games between the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles:
Aug. 8-10 at Baltimore
Aug. 15-17 at Toronto
Sept. 5-7 at Baltimore
Sept. 16-18 at Toronto
Oct. 3-5 at Baltimore
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