Blue Jays miraculously occupy playoff spot after another series win

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TORONTO — Consistency breeds confidence, which in turn is breeding respect.

And the respect was visible when Josh Donaldson exchanged jerseys with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. after the Toronto Blue Jays' 5-3 win over Donaldson's Minnesota Twins on Sunday.

This series win — the seventh in a row for the Jays — seemed like yet another guarantee that this team refuses to be overlooked.

"I think that respect (from other teams) comes from the way we are in our dugout," said Guerrero Jr., in Spanish, after Sunday's win. "We're always together, trying to cheer on our teammates, whether it's the pitcher or the batter, you know. I think all of that comes from how we are in our dugout."

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has all eyes on him as he vies for the Triple Crown. (Getty)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has all eyes on him as he vies for the Triple Crown. (Getty)

In the dugout and on the field, this young Blue Jays lineup continued to have fun.

Bo Bichette hit his 26th homer of the season to cap off a five-run first inning on Sunday that saw the entire Toronto lineup get a turn at the plate and instantly drove Twins starter Luke Farrell out of the game.

On the other side, a familiar face for the Twins collected another win as a Blue Jay. José Berríos, who played the first five-and-a-half years of his career in Minnesota, pitched 6.2 innings, allowing three runs, four hits and a walk while striking out six batters.

Berríos feels the love in the Blue Jays dugout, too. But it was still a nostalgic experience to be on the other side of a game against the Twins.

"(It felt) weird. Different." Berríos said after the game. "But it's our work. We know we have to be professional and do what we have to do, and I did it. I was trying to focus on myself, to do what we can do out there."

The early run support certainly helped keep that focus.

Bichette's two-run bomb came with one out in the first, when Guerrero Jr. had already driven in one run for the Jays and waited patiently at first base for his teammate to hit it out of the park so he could trot the bases. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Breyvic Valera cashed in two more and that was all the Blue Jays needed.

Guerrero Jr. finished the game with a double and two singles on a 3-for-4 night, as once again the crowd at Rogers Centre chanted "M-V-P!" Donaldson told the Toronto Sun's Rob Longley that Guerrero Jr. has his support for the award in the American League.

"That coming from someone who won MVP here, from a great ball player, I feel really happy," Guerrero Jr. said.

In a way, Donaldson and Guerrero Jr.'s jersey swap was a passing of the torch. The former Blue Jays slugger and AL MVP was a mentor to Guerrero Jr. long before the 22-year-old became a Triple Crown contender or even got the call up to the major leagues.

An integral piece in the Blue Jays' success in the 2015 postseason, Donaldson now recognizes the next generation — one that he had a small part in shaping.

"He told me to stay focused and keep working hard," Guerrero Jr. said of the words he exchanged with Donaldson during the jersey swap. "Since I was in the minor leagues, he would always give me advice."

Now, it's Guerrero Jr.'s turn to fight for a postseason berth and contend for an MVP award.

With the New York Yankees' 11-1 loss to Cleveland on Sunday, Toronto pulled ahead and now holds a 1.5-game lead in the second AL Wild Card spot. Less than a month ago, the Blue Jays found themselves seven games back of a playoff spot.

After a rough start and three separate moves until they finally returned to Toronto, the Blue Jays started the season looking like a messy collection of potential stars, hovering around .500 and struggling with consistency. Then, something clicked. The team found unity, the bats got hot, the rotation started dealing, and suddenly they were right back in the mix.

"I feel like everybody thought that's who we were," Bichette said after the Blue Jays' series win over the Tampa Bay Rays. "Now, we're showing everybody who we are."

And they're commanding respect in the process.

The Blue Jays travel to Tampa Bay to face the Rays for the final time this season. From there, they head for Berríos's old stompin' grounds in Minnesota to get another look at the Twins.

The team will have a hurdle to clear right away on this road trip, as left-handed starter Hyun-Jin Ryu landed on the 10-day injured list with a mild neck tightness, which general manager Ross Atkins says he felt the day after his latest start. Ryu pitched only two innings on Friday against Minnesota, allowing five runs and five hits in the 7-3 loss — the only L the Jays took in the three-game series.

"I think we're still in a decent position to be able to weather the hit," Atkins said. "And hopefully the hit is just one turn through the rotation."

Ryu is expected to miss only one start. Though he hasn't been as dominant as his past self, the Blue Jays rotation has been stellar the past few weeks.

Berríos's strong outing came at the heels of Steven Matz's on Saturday, when he went 5.2 innings of two-run ball with five strikeouts, three hits and two walks, earning a 6-2 win with the help of home runs by Marcus Semien and Teoscar Hernández.

"We trust in each other," Hernández said on Saturday. "I think that's what's been the key for this team. We go out there and we battle every day."

The league is clearly paying attention.

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