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Blue Jays beat Rays, hoping for an even bigger party

TORONTO – The longest playoff drought in North American professional sports no longer resides with our neighbors up the Queen Elizabeth Way. And now that the Toronto Blue Jays know they’re headed to baseball’s postseason for the first time since 1993, the eyes in their clubhouse – and across a nation of energized fans – are focused on even bigger goals.

Manager John Gibbons led a muted champagne toast in the room following Saturday’s 10-8 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Rogers Centre. Unbeknownst to anyone in the organization, the team had actually clinched at least a wild card in the wee hours of the morning and is now pushing hard to win the American League East.

But for an hour or so late Saturday afternoon, the group suddenly decided to let down its collective hair and party. It wasn’t going to. There wasn’t even the requisite plastic protecting belongings in lockers. But once the cigars got lit and a little beer and a little bubbly starting flying, well ... things got a wee bit crazy.

“We had a little talk before the game that we weren’t going to do this, not a big celebration,” said Jose Bautista, who hit two home runs in his 1,397th big-league game to finally reach the postseason for the first time.

Then Bautista got crunched by the sprays.

“We want to win the division,” Bautista said, continuing his thought. “We just got in here and everybody got taken by the excitement and started celebrating. I don’t know where they were hiding the champagne but somebody went and got it. We expect to have another one of these. That’s our goal.”

With eight games left, they lead the Yankees by four games in the division and have pulled even with Kansas City -- with a tiebreaker advantage -- for the best record in the league after the Royals lost to Cleveland Saturday night.

The Blue Jays have not seen postseason play since Joe Carter’s World Series-winning home run cleared the left-field fence here 22 years ago next month. With eight games left, they lead the Yankees by four games in the division and have pulled even with Kansas City -- with a tiebreaker advantage -- for the best record in the league after the Royals lost to Cleveland Saturday night.

Once slogging along at 50-51, the Blue Jays were resurrected at the trade deadline with acquisitions of the likes of David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere, Latroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe. They’re 39-14 since.

“They’ve competed day in and day out and we’re proud of them,” said manager John Gibbons. “You have to recognize it’s been so long. It’s been a battle all year. ... Some great acquisitions and we just took off and played great ball ever since. I tip my hat to those guys.”

The biggest move made by General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was clearly getting an ace in Price. He improved to 18-5 on the season and 9-1 with Toronto even though he gave up five runs. But the offense staked him to a 5-0 lead in the first on Bautista’s three-run shot and Russell Martin’s two-run bomb to left off Tampa starter Chris Archer and the Rays never caught up.

“Anytime you put yourself in the postseason, you’ve got to celebrate, and that’s what we did,” Price said. “This group of guys deserves it.”

The Blue Jays piled up double digits in runs for the 25th time this season, the first time a team has hit that number since the 2011 Red Sox. They have 848 runs for the year – over 100 more than any other team. In fact, only the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers have even eclipsed 700.

No one thought this was possible on July 28. The Blue Jays were 50-51, fourth in the AL East and eight games behind the Yankees. Moreover, they were 12 games behind Kansas City.

“It turned instantly,” Gibbons said. “It wasn’t like we brought in some new guys where there was a little period of time for guys to jell and get going. It just happened.”

“We were scoring too many runs and our pitching is too solid. It’s got to change,” Gibbons added when asked his thoughts at the time. “Everybody thought there would be a couple moves but nobody thought they would be that impactful.”

Initially there was hope of a wild card. Gibbons said he started thinking about the division after the three-game sweep of the Yankees in the Bronx in early August. But passing the Royals was unthinkable.

“I didn’t look at it,” Gibbons said. “Kansas City was on some kind of roll blowing everybody away. All of a sudden, you look up and you’re a game behind them. Didn’t expect it.”

The Blue Jays stage their home finale Sunday before hitting the road for the final seven games to Baltimore and Tampa Bay. Saturday’s roaring, towel-waving crowd of 47,094 was the Jays’ 20th sellout in their last 21 games, a throwback to the early ’90s.

“It’s been unreal,” Price said. “What they’ve done for us is very big. We’ve got to acknowledge those people.”

Gibbons said he was particularly happy for veteran players who had never made the postseason, names like Bautista, fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion (believed to be the culprit for bringing out the champagne) and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

“It’s the ultimate goal for all these guys,” Gibbons said. “There’s guys running around the big leagues in the history of the game, Hall of Fame players, who never got there. Nobody wants that. There’s been some lean years here. ... It’s very rewarding and it will be a chance really for the whole world to see what those guys are all about.”

But the work isn’t done. The division title is next. That will be the real party to head into the meat of October.

And where do the Blue Jays send the inglorious title of franchise with the longest postseason absence? Back down the QEW. Buffalo Bills, you’re on the clock.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com