Relentless schedule ahead could determine Blue Jays’ playoff fate

Justin Smoak drove in three RBI and Josh Donaldson hit two home runs as the Toronto Blue Jays rebounded against the New York Yankees.

It’s been said that you can split the Major League Baseball season into thirds: One third of the season to figure out who your team is, one third of the season to figure out if you’re any good, and one third to make a final push to the post-season.

If you buy into this notion, then welcome to the Preview of the Middle Third of the Blue Jays’ 2017 season. In case you were wondering, it’s no longer “early”, though it’s not quite “late” either.

In some seasons, focusing in hard on the middle two months might seem a bit of a lark. But as this franchise teeters on its window’s ledge, the next eight weeks will go a long way towards deciding how the next several years of Blue Jays baseball might play out.

Knowing that those eight weeks will conclude with the non-waiver trade deadline only adds to the pressure.

Where we are, and how did we got here: Every season is peculiar in its own ways, but it’s hard to recall a season quite a strange as this one. It’s not simply a matter of a momentously awful start, paired with a series of injury calamities that have undermined their performance from the start of the year. It’s also that the Blue Jays have nearly clawed themselves completely out of the historic hole, but that they haven’t seemed overwhelmingly good until maybe this past week.

Ultimately, the Blue Jays’ 1-9 start still looms over the season thus far, even though in that stretch, they were never quite as bad as the outcomes seemed to indicate. A few unlucky breaks in one direction, or a few lasers that could have found grass instead of leather, and suddenly the Jays hold down a Wild Card spot and have the first-place New York Yankees in their sights.

In sickness and in health: Injuries are a part of the game, and it does little good to blame the poor start on the poor health of the team to this point. But if you were to have compared the Jays’ disabled list to the active roster in the pre-season, you may have favoured the DL to finish higher in the American League East.

Complicating matters is the new-fangled 10-day DL, which is a handy option for teams to take a limping player off the roster, and the Blue Jays haven’t hesitated to make use of this roster option to this point. But the Blue Jays have also seemed to be very cautious and deliberate in the healing and rehab for several players, notably J.A. Happ, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki.

One can’t blame the team and their high performance team for taking such a measured approach to health in the early part of the season. You don’t need to rush a player back if you know playing with an injury could exacerbate it over the long haul of the season, and lead to him being less effective.

However, with the importance of the next two months, one wonders if there will be any change in the expectations for what sort of condition players will need to be in to return to the field, especially when they are central to the Blue Jays’ success.

The road ahead: This weekend’s series against the Yankees is as good a reminder as any that the schedule ahead is relentless. The Jays will get two series each against the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, as well as a series each with their other AL East rivals, the Orioles and Rays.

When not playing in the division, the Jays will have two road trips out of the Eastern time zone in June (Oakland, Seattle, Texas and Kansas City), as well as four games at home to the juggernaut Houston Astros and three games in Cleveland. In an era of parity, there aren’t many cheap series wins to be had.

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Players to watch: It’s probably redundant to single out the Blue Jays’ best player as a focal point for this part of the schedule, but Josh Donaldson’s performance and presence in this portion of the schedule will be vital to the Jays’ aspirations for a third straight playoff appearance.

The Jays have had pleasant surprise performances from Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar in the first trimester of the season, but it’s not unreasonable to expect some regression to previous performance, or for the book on these players to be updated.

Having a healthy and productive Donaldson as the centrepiece of the lineup and a cornerstone of the infield defence could help push the Jays back into contention. An extended slump or a return to the sidelines could help to expedite Donaldson’s departure from Toronto.

On the pitching side, Joe Biagini’s progress and transition into the rotation has been one of the more positive stories of the season. Other starters returning from the DL could decrease his role somewhat, or see him returned to the bullpen, but Biagini’s ability to remain stretched out, strong and effective will be important in the coming weeks. Moreover, his ability to go deeper into games could help to preserve his former mates beyond the Rogers Centre’s left-field wall.

Prediction: Here’s a guess on the 53 games in June and July: The Blue Jays go 29-24, have a couple of tough stretches, a decent winning streak, and do just enough to keep them in the Wild Card hunt.