TORONTO — Exactly seven weeks ago, the Orioles trailed the division-leading New York Yankees by 10 games. They were lingering just three games over .500. It appeared the O's weren't going to be able to keep pace with the powers of the American League East.
Now, the Orioles wake up tied for first place with the reeling Yankees, atop of the baseball's best division in September for the first time in 15 years.
The Orioles' resounding 12-0 thumping of the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night at the Rogers Center — combined with the Tampa Bay Rays' 5-2 win over the Yankees — put the O's neck-and-neck with New York with 27 games remaining in the regular season.
It's the first time the Orioles have been in first place in September since 1997, when they went wire to wire and advanced to the American League Championship Series.
“It's a big deal obviously, but there are a lot of games left,” said first baseman Mark Reynolds, whose three-run homer in the fifth inning Tuesday broke a scoreless tie. “Us and the Yankees and the Rays are all right there. We can't take anything for granted.”
In the same breath, the hot-hitting Reynolds made it known that the division has turned on its axis.
“We know we control our own destiny,” he said. “We've got four games with [the Yankees] coming up and if we just take care of business, it should all fall into place.”
First, the Orioles (76-59) would like to leave Toronto with a sweep. They've outscored the Blue Jays 16-0 in the first two games of this series and have taken two series here in a season for the first time since 2005.
Tuesday's win, which came in front of an announced 13,556, marked the Orioles' largest margin of victory this season, their 18 hits set a new season high, and their 12 runs tied a season high.
The Orioles are now tied for the second best record in the AL, and their .574 road winning percentage tops the league. They have won nine of 11 and 21 of their last 29 games, pushing toward their first winning season — and first playoff berth — since that 1997 season.
“We've got too many bridges to cross, too many things to do, to accomplish the goal that everybody had going into spring training,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has kept his team on an even keep all season. “We played well tonight. … We'll try to stay in the moment and stay in what's important. Keep a grip on reality, and our guys are feeding off each other with that mentality.”
Orioles lefty Zach Britton was nearly flawless Tuesday night, throwing seven scoreless innings and holding the Blue Jays to just four hits.
Britton (5-1) won his fourth straight start since returning to the Orioles after being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk in early August. In that span, Britton is pitching to a 0.94 ERA with 29 strikeouts and just five walks.
“I'm trying to be as aggressive as possible,” Britton said. “I think last year I went through a really good stretch of being aggressive and I got beat around a little bit and started nibbling. This year, I really focused on saying. ‘Hey, if I'm aggressive, my stuff is good enough to get people out.'”
Britton complemented a heavy dose of fastballs with a two-seam sinker and slider, striking out eight and walking just two.
“He had good stuff, and most importantly he was able to get ahead of some hitters,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “I think we did see earlier that they were going to take a pitch and try to wait him out. It was big to get strike one, and then he was really able to use his movement.
“With his kind of movement and his kind of pitches, being ahead is always going to be to his advantage, because he can start balls in the strike zone and let them break out and get swings on them.”
The Orioles provided more than enough offense to support Britton. Reynolds hit his fifth homer in the past five games and finished the night 3-for-4 with 4 RBIs. In the first five games of the Orioles' road trip to New York and Toronto, he's 8-for-19 with five homers, 11 RBIs, 7 runs and 3 walks.
Blue Jays right-hander Carlos Villanueva (7-5), who was starting the Orioles off with several off-speed pitches, faced the minimum number of hitters through four innings, but Reynolds' home run seemed to open the flood gates.
“Once we got couple runs, it kind of settled everybody down and broke the ice a little bit,” Reynolds said. “And Zach just went out there and threw his sinker tonight, and he pitched a great game.”
The Orioles have held the Blue Jays, a team riddled by injuries all season long, to just seven hits through the first two games of the series.
Showalter said he expected a “beehive” from the Blue Jays in Wednesday's series finale, and inside the Orioles clubhouse there was no celebration, not even loud music that sometimes plays after big wins.
“It's nice that we're playing well, but at the same time, we have how many more games to play before the end of the year?” Wieters said. “It's nice to be here now, but it's not our goal. It's our goal to be there at the end of the year.”