TORONTO -- For four brilliant innings on Monday night, it did not seem to matter who was standing in the batter's box for the Yankees. Derek Jeter. Alex Rodriguez. Robinson Cano. Blue Jays left-hander Marc Rzepczynski was in complete control against them all.
"I felt like I was going to get anybody out," Rzepczynski said.
One by one, the young lefty did just that, piling up strikeouts at a furious rate early on for the Blue Jays. Then Rzepczynski seemed to hit a wall, and the Yankees did their best to rally, trying to mount a comeback for a win that would clinch a postseason berth.
Rzepcynski's early effort would not be wasted, though, as Toronto held on for a 7-5 victory at Rogers Centre to keep New York's champagne on ice. In the process, the Blue Jays picked up their 81st win of the year to avoid a losing season, defying preseason predictions of a last-place finish in the American League East.
"There are a lot of people that didn't think we were going to win that many games," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "No matter what happens the rest of the way, this team's done a great job this year."
That Rzepczynski enjoyed such a dominant showing against the Yankees (93-64) was a surprise in itself. New York had pounded the young lefty to the tune of a 10.47 ERA in four previous meetings. On Monday night, Rzepczynski moved beyond that history and cruised through the Yankees' potent lineup.
Rodriguez struck out to end the first inning, initiating a spectacular 12-batter run for Rzepczynski. The left-hander struck out the side in both the second and third innings and added another pair of whiffs in the fourth. Within that overpowering stretch, Rzepczynski struck out six hitters in a row.
That equaled a Blue Jays franchise record for consecutive strikeouts, which was set by Ted Lilly on Aug. 23, 2004, against the Red Sox. Rzepczynski accomplished the feat between the second and fourth innings, striking out Curtis Granderson, Francisco Cervelli, Jeter, Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez in order.
"I've never seen him that good," Teixeira said. "His ball was moving everywhere. It was like swinging against a ghost out there. You didn't know what it was going to do."
In the first four innings, Rzepczynski struck out nine, matching his career high for a start. The lone Yankees hitter not to be set down on strikes by the southpaw was Austin Kearns. Blue Jays catcher John Buck said the key for Rzepczynski was a strong changeup and hitting his spots inside.
"He was awesome," Buck said. "That's another step forward for him. He pitched in well and had a really good changeup going today. He threw a couple of them in key situations, where he would always go to the slider. So he was able to add another pitch to his arsenal."
The only issue was that Rzepczynski began to unravel quickly in the fifth inning.
"I felt like the best I've thrown the ball all year," Rzepczynski said. "I had the slider, fastball -- I was getting ahead. Basically for me, it was getting ahead and being able to expand after that. First four innings, I felt great. After that, it was a little different."
Following a leadoff walk to Kearns in the fifth, Granderson sent a 1-0 offering from Rzepczynski into the second deck above right field for a two-run home run. Rzepczynski issued two more free passes and a base hit in the frame, but escaped further damage. At that point, however, Gaston opted to turn to his bullpen.
"He just kind of let the speed of the game -- the excitement -- get to him," Buck said. "That's the way I feel and, after the game I talked to him, and he said he felt the same way. By the time he kind of slowed back down, I think Cito decided, 'Let's end him on a positive note.'"
Fortunately for the Blue Jays (81-75), their offense produced early and often against Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett. Buck belted a solo home run in the second inning and Vernon Wells added a three-run blast as part of a five-run outburst in the third, pushing Toronto to a 7-0 advantage.
Burnett (10-15) hit the showers after just 2 1/3 innings and was charged with all seven runs plated by the Blue Jays.
The pair of blasts upped the Blue Jays' Major League-leading total to 243 this year, putting the club one shy of matching its 2000 club record of 244 homers in a single season. Beyond that, the homers provided a large enough cushion to withstand New York's comeback bid.
"A.J. is a guy who, once he gets in his comfort zone, he can dominate," Wells said. "I think guys took advantage of whatever mistakes he made. With him, you have to take advantage of the situations and guys were able to do that tonight."
Blue Jays left-hander Brian Tallet turned in a clean sixth inning before running into trouble in the seventh. Following base hits from Jeter and Swisher, Teixeira deposited a pitch from Tallet over the wall in center field for a three-run homer that trimmed Toronto's lead to 7-5.
From there, the Jays' bullpen kept the Yankees' bats in check. That included the ninth inning, when closer Kevin Gregg picked up his 36th save of the year by setting down the three hitters he faced in order.
"That's a manager's dream," Gaston said with a grin.
For that matter, so was Rzepczynski's early performance.
And for the young lefty, it meant a little more that it happened against the Yankees.
"Yeah, because they've hit me pretty well," he said. "I was rolling, throwing pitches where I wanted."