The champagne and Budweiser were on ice at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday night and the Blue Jays were ready to celebrate.
Early and often was the game plan, with goals still to be reached before the 2022 season of such high hope ends.
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Instead, history and one of the best home-run hitters in baseball’s modern era got in the way, keeping the party plans chilled for at least another day.
The great Aaron Judge and his relentless drive to baseball immortality interrupted the Jays pursuit in what ultimately will be remembered as a special night at the downtown dome.
The New York Yankees superstar launched a 394-foot line drive over the wall in left field in the seventh inning, propelling his team to an 8-3 win while cementing a spot in Yankees lore.
Home run number 61 of this season of prolific power came off Jays lefty Tim Mayza in the seventh inning of what the Jays had hoped would be a night ending in the clinching of a playoff spot.
And it was a monster blast at that, a two-run shot that was sent thundering off Judge’s bat at 117 miles per hour and matching the American League home run record of 61 set by former Yankee Roger Maris 61 years ago.
The momentous blast ended a homer drought of seven games for Judge and added to a memorable visit to Toronto for the Yankees, who clinched the American League East title the night before.
The Jays, who had entered their 156th game with a magic number of two to clinch a playoff spot, can still secure one on Thursday’s off day. If the Baltimore Orioles lose against the Red Sox at Fenway Park — after falling 3-1 in Boston Wednesday — the Jays will claim one of three AL wildcard tickets.
Back to Wednesday’s festivities — good for the visitors, not so much for the home nine. Early on the Jay were getting shut down by another Yankee great as starter Gerrit Cole pitched five perfect innings before Danny Jansen rocked a leadoff homer in the sixth to end that bid.
When the Jays cashed in two more in the inning, it was suddenly a 3-3 game and the party-ready crowd of 37,008 at the Rogers Centre erupted in anticipation of more.
Instead, the stage was set and the moment finally on hand for Judge, who had been walked repeatedly in the three-game series. The sweet-swinging slugger unleashed one of his best and delivered a blast for the ages.
The ball exited in the park in a hurry, crashing off the wall above the Jays bullpen, just out of the reach of fans clamouring for a potentially lucrative piece of history.
Zooming out to the bigger picture of the Jays post-season pursuit, they are getting close enough now that they can taste it. Task number one is to get in, which could happen on Thursday’s off day if the Red Sox help out once more.
But primary among the goals is to secure the top wildcard seed, which would set next Friday as the opener of a best-of-three series at the Rogers Centre.
Whenever the cause for celebration arrives officially, the Jays will be ready to imbibe in recognition of an accomplishment in the most gruelling season in North American professional sports.
“That’s the best part of baseball — celebrating what you’ve accomplished,” Jays manager John Schneider said, before the boozy bash was put on hold. “You don’t want to ever take anything for granted in this game. Every point that you reached that was a goal, you should definitely celebrate it.
“We play every day and it’s hard. The guys that play 162 appreciate that you’re one of the few teams standing after that mark. And that’s how it’s always been. I appreciate that. It’s such a long season that you have to take a step back and appreciate where you are.”
They’ve seen enough of the Yankees celebrations the past two nights. Now they’re ready for some of their own.
AROUND THE BASES
Jansen’s home run was his 14th, a career-high surpassing the 13 he hit in 2019 … With the loss, the Jays dropped two of three to the Yanks, their first defeat in the past nine series … As they move towards clinching, could the streaky Jays be considered live long shots to win the World Series? Current prices at Bodog have them listed as the 15-1 seventh choice. The Los Angeles Dodgers remain the hefty 3-1 favourite … With 87 wins and six games remaining, the Jays will have to go 4-2 to match their 91-win total from last season.