Blue Jays, Royals vie for home-field advantage
It was a memorably contentious game at Rogers Centre on the first Sunday of August that determined the answer to the increasingly relevant October question: If the Royals and Blue Jays wind up tied for the American League's best record, which team would gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs?
Answer: the Blue Jays.
That conclusion came by way of a 5-2 victory for Toronto on Aug. 2 in a tense game that included the benches clearing. The win ultimately clinched the seven-game season series between the two clubs for Toronto, 4-3. Come October, the Blue Jays and the Royals could be meeting in the seven-game set known as the American League Championship Series, but much is to be determined before then.
Through Wednesday's games, the AL Central-leading Royals (85-60) are clinging to the AL's best mark with a two-game lead over the AL East-leading Jays (83-62). Kansas City held a three-game lead on Aug. 2, but it was over the Yankees and Astros. Both have now slipped behind the Blue Jays, who were nine games off KC's pace at the time -- they've gained seven games since.
It's still advantage Royals, and having their home fans roaring as loud as possible at Kauffman Stadium in October is definitely something the boys in blue have in their sights heading down the stretch.
"Sure, that's always been one of the goals, to get home-field advantage," first baseman Eric Hosmer said Wednesday before the Royals' 5-1 loss at Cleveland. "We know what an edge it gives us to play in front of our own fans. That's huge."
As for the Jays, their focus has to be more on their division race with the Yankees just three games behind them in the AL East.
"Every game that we play, every series that we play from here on out is very important, and we can't put any more importance on any certain game or any certain series, but we all know that we need to win games, and just keep playing the same baseball that we've been playing," said Toronto's newcomer David Price, a five-time postseason participant.
If, somehow, it all shakes out with the Royals tied with the Jays, we'll have to go back to that August day in Toronto when tensions peaked between two talented teams with eyes on the playoffs.
The four-game series was in its second day when the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline passed that Friday, and both were showing off new stars on the weekend. The Blue Jays grabbed an ace in Price and a superstar shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki, among other July moves. The Royals added starter Johnny Cueto and versatile Ben Zobrist as part of a strong haul themselves.
From the outset of Sunday's rubber match for the seven-game season series, things got chippy, and the postgame comments weren't exactly chummy afterward.
Kansas City's starter, Edinson Volquez, hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch in the first inning, drawing warnings for both sides from home-plate umpire Jim Wolf. When Volquez sent another pitch up and in against Donaldson in the third, he drew ire from the Jays, but no ejection.
It was a tense afternoon from there, with Jays manager John Gibbons ejected in the seventh and benches clearing without serious incident in the eighth after Toronto's reliever, Aaron Sanchez, was ejected for hitting Alcides Escobar with a pitch.
Meanwhile, between the lines, Zobrist responded with a two-run homer to pull KC within a run, but a sac fly, and Jays newcomer Tulowitzki's RBI single made it a three-run lead again in the bottom half of the eighth.
That's the winning margin for a pivotal victory Toronto hopes will be even sweeter if the squad can pass, or even just catch, the Royals. It would be the Jays' first postseason appearance since 1993.
Last year, the Royals rode a wave of emotion pent up for decades to their first postseason victory since 1985 when they hosted the AL Wild Card game. But, as a Wild Card team, they didn't hold home-field advantage until the World Series.
Kansas City wound up 90 feet from a game-tying run in Game 7, ultimately going 6-2 at home and 5-2 on the road in October.
"Getting home field [throughout] would be great," said manager Ned Yost, who led the AL to an All-Star Game victory, which secured World Series home-field advantage. "Our fans have so much energy and there's so much excitement when we play at home, it's a big difference. But we also know based on last year we can win big games on the road."