Tao of Stieb: Blue Jays giving fans hope with playoff spot so close

Justin Smoak hit a tie-breaking home run in the 8th inning, Donaldson added two solo blasts as the Blue Jays beat the Rays 5-3 on Thursday.

Every baseball fan can list off the fiercest rivalries in the game: Red Sox and Yankees, Giants and Dodgers, Cubs and Cardinals. But as Blue Jays fans can certainly attest at this point of the season, there may not be a more fierce rivalry than that of their Heads versus their Hearts.

The ongoing and progressing statistical revolution in baseball is an attempt to replace superstition, legend, fallacy and folklore with rational, logical and predictive knowledge, and by and large, fans have been well-served by the insights that this line of inquiry has developed.

While a rational approach to understanding the game can help to eliminate false narratives, it also has the side effect of throwing shady cold water on almost any narrative, even as it is still evolving. And in a sport where there is one champion per year and few other consolation prizes, it always seems a safe bet to assume that the season will end in disappointment.

Shouting to the world that any season is a lost cause is an easy way to pass off cynicism as wisdom.

Few Blue Jays fans before the season would have considered sitting three games below .500 this late in the season as a positive. And yet, with Josh Donaldson playing transcendently inspired baseball, and late inning dramatics yesterday sealing another series win, fans are casting an incredulous eye towards the standings and embracing their inner-Lloyd Christmas: "So you’re telling me there’s a chance!"

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

The Blue Jays are caught up in one of the more remarkable late season playoff chases in baseball history, certainly aided by the recent institution of the second Wild Card spot. While the three division winners in the American League seem increasingly certain, there are nine teams who realistically have a chance at the play-in game.

A growing parity in baseball, both on the field and in the front office, paired with the new reality of the second Wild Card, creates a scenario where few teams in the mushy middle of the standings seek to add talent aggressively, but few teams aggressively shed everyday talent either. It creates tension that is less a playoff race than a playoff stasis.

The Blue Jays technically remain in last place in the American League East, tied with the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays with a .488 winning percentage. There are still eight other teams who could get hot for a week or two and separate themselves from the field.

But as a fan, one can’t help but look at the next six weeks, and imagine that despite the historic slow start, the injuries, the failed bullpen additions, the underperformers and the bad luck, that somehow, our team will still be playing meaningful games until the end.

Maybe you’ve trained your baseball mind to remain suspicious of positives that are expressed through small samples, and maybe this three week stretch shouldn’t feel more meaningful than the previous 17 weeks to date. But beyond the end of September sits a long, cold winter without baseball, so if you need to give yourself over to your irrational hope and enthusiasm, now is the time.

There’s no great reward for being "right" about the negative outcomes in baseball, but there is not penalty for being "wrong" in hoping for positive outcomes.

Given the option, and given everything else that is happening in the world around us, why wouldn’t you want to give yourself over to Team Heart for the next few weeks?

If you’re still among the believers, this weekend’s series isn’t just about the Jays showing up in a historic locale for some photo opportunities: It’s a test against a legitimate postseason contender. And two late season series against the Twins is suddenly an opportunity to make up ground on a rival for one of those spots in the October baseball dance.

Indeed, almost every series from here through the end of the season will be imbued with added meaning, at least if the current logjam in the standings remains in place.

There have been many opportunities to write this Blue Jays team off this season, and many perfectly logical reasons to do so. But with a playoff spot so tantalizingly close, fans can be excused for embracing hope, and losing their minds.