TORONTO -- The Blue Jays were just three innings away from landing a major blow to the Yankees' hopes of winning the American League East crown.
Instead of winning three of four, Toronto settled for a split after blowing a four-run lead in Sunday's 9-6 loss to New York, which remained tied with Baltimore for first place in the division with three games left in the regular season.
The Blue Jays -- who wasted a strong effort by starter Henderson Alvarez -- allowed seven runs from the seventh inning on and came up short in a ninth-inning rally in front of 31,418 at Rogers Centre.
"I thought in his final start, it was important for [Alvarez] to end on a strong note," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "He had gone through the order three times with [Eric] Chavez leading off that seventh inning, and we started to match up from there."
The matchups didn't work out well.
Toronto turned in an all-around effort for more than half of the game and looked poised to affect the outcome of the East race. But things fell apart once Alvarez, who threw six innings of two-run ball, left the game.
Brett Cecil relieved Alvarez and was unable to retire his only batter, pitch-hitter Eduardo Nunez, who singled to right. Steve Delabar came in after Cecil and had a difficult time handling New York's offensive might.
Delabar allowed a ground-rule double to Derek Jeter, which put runners on second and third with no outs for Ichiro Suzuki, who hit a sacrifice fly to make it 5-3. The right-hander walked Alex Rodriguez before Robinson Cano hit an RBI double to end his day.
It was Aaron Loup's turn next, and he issued a wild pitch, Toronto's second of the day, which allowed Rodriguez to score and capped off New York's three-run seventh inning, tying the game at 5.
Darren Oliver, who took the loss, allowed two runs in the eighth before Jason Frasor surrendered two more in the ninth to make it a 9-5 game.
"It was an outstanding job they did," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "It was nice to get those extra two in the ninth inning, and as you can see, they were pretty important."
Despite watching their convincing lead evaporate, the Blue Jays didn't quit.
For the ninth, New York turned to Rafael Soriano, who has had a strong season in the absence of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. The Blue Jays got to the right-hander, though, making things interesting.
Brett Lawrie and Rajai Davis led off the inning with back-to-back singles and Colby Rasmus followed by drawing a five-pitch walk to load the bases for the potential tying run, Yunel Escobar.
But Escobar hit into a double play, which cashed one run, before Adam Lind grounded out to end the game.
"Those last three innings proved to be the difference against our bullpen, which has been very effective of late," Farrell said.
Before New York broke the game open, it looked as if Alvarez was going to pick up the victory in his final start of the season.
The only runs Alvarez allowed came on a solo homer by Chavez to lead off the third and a wild pitch in the fifth that scored Cano.
Alvarez, who finished the season 9-14 with a 4.85 ERA, entered the start with the highest ground-ball rate in the AL and did a good job of keeping the ball down in the strike zone, recording 11 groundouts against just one flyout. He recorded his fourth quality start in his past five outings, and Farrell believes the right-hander can credit an adjustment he made to his changeup for the success.
"Henderson threw the ball exceptionally well," Farrell said. "Very good stuff, good power to his fastball. Very good changeup with a lot of depth, with swing-and-miss ability."
Alvarez, who recorded his team-leading 16th quality start of the season, walked none, struck out four and threw 58 of his 87 pitches for strikes. He entered Sunday with the second-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Majors, behind only teammate Ricky Romero, but he posted a 17-to-3 ratio in his final three starts.
The young right-hander agreed with his skipper as to why he finished the year on a positive note.
"I feel like the reason I pitched better the last month of the season was because the changeup was better," Alvarez said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I feel strong, and I thank God that I finished healthy and strong."
Alvarez had a lead to work with all game, thanks to his offense.
The Blue Jays jumped ahead in the first inning with a pair of runs, one coming on an RBI double by Escobar and the second on a sac fly by Lind.
Toronto then tacked on three more in the fifth.
Lawrie hit a towering two-run homer -- his 11th of the season -- off Yankees starter Phil Hughes on a 1-1 pitch. The drive landed in the upper deck in left field and put Toronto up, 4-1.
Moises Sierra added an RBI single later in the inning to plate Escobar and give the Blue Jays a four-run lead, chasing Hughes from the game.
Hughes lasted 4 2/3 innings, allowed eight hits and was charged with five runs.
Toronto, which has lost 10 of its last 14 contests, will finish its season with three games against the Twins at Rogers Centre starting on Monday night.
Chris Toman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.