TORONTO – The 91st win of this Toronto Blue Jays season without peer finished with a crowd of 29,942 erupting when Adam Cimber induced a weak fielder’s choice from Pat Valaika to seal a 12-4 thrashing of the Baltimore Orioles, and a giant watch party at the Rogers Centre.
Their fate was left in the hands of the Washington Nationals, who had to beat the Boston Red Sox to force a Game 163 between the American League East rivals. Minutes earlier, the New York Yankees walked off the Tampa Bay Rays 1-0 to claim the first wild card spot and a day that began with 16 different possibilities for tiebreakers and the wild-card game was choking off.
Then, Rafael Devers hammered a two-run homer to centre field to break a tie in the ninth, with Canadian Nick Pivetta locking things down in the bottom of the inning for a 7-5 win that ended the Blue Jays’ season while extending the Red Sox’s campaign. Boston will face the Yankees in the wild-card game on Tuesday.
It was nearly a forceful and fateful entrance to the post-season, as the Blue Jays headed into the weekend needing a sweep of the Orioles, which they accomplished by outscoring the American League doormat by a cumulative score of 28-9, plus losses from their rivals.
Sunday was just the fourth time the Blue Jays played Game 162 with their season at stake, the most recent coming in 2016, when they ended up winning the first wild card. In 1987, they lost 1-0 to the Detroit Tigers on a Larry Herndon home run to finish two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL East, while in 1990, they finished with a walk-off 3-2 loss to Baltimore as Boston’s 3-1 win secured the division for the Red Sox.
This one only added to the heartbreak, as the season’s end ushers in a series of bigger-picture questions, chief among them the pending free agencies of Marcus Semien, who delivered an MVP-calibre season after signing an $18-million, one-year deal, and Robbie Ray, arguably the Cy Young Award favourite after re-signing for $8 million.
Lefty Steven Matz can also hit the free-agent market, meaning the Blue Jays may need to replace their No. 2 hitter along with 2/5ths of a rotation that was their backbone. They’ll also have to wrestle with how to improve the roster while factoring in that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette will eventually need mega-deals, and that if they hope to extend Teoscar Hernandez, they only have two years of club control left so the time is nigh.
Up until the Red Sox-Nationals game was put up on the videoboard, the was little drama on the Rogers Centre field Sunday, as Hyun Jin Ryu struck out two in a clean top of the first, George Springer homered off Bruce Zimmermann to open the bottom half and the Blue Jays kept piling on from there.
Hernandez and Santiago Espinal added RBI singles later in the inning to knock out Zimmermann, the type of fate one might have expected for Ryan Merritt in Game 5 of the 2016 ALCS against Cleveland, the last time they faced a slop-tossing lefty in a game of magnitude.
Guerrero Jr. hit his 48th homer, a new record for players 22 or younger, in the second to make it 5-0, a Springer grand slam in the third made it 9-1, Hernandez added another two-run single in the fourth and Semien smashed his 45th homer in the fifth.
At points it was difficult to imagine how the Orioles would conjure up 24 outs.
That offence, and the way the rotation has coalesced since the trade deadline acquisition of Jose Berrios, would have made the Blue Jays a feared potential opponent in the playoffs.
The Blue Jays now have several what ifs to ponder, how differently their fate would have turned out had they been in Toronto prime among them. Due to pandemic border restrictions, their season began at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., where they went 10-11 before heading to Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, where they went 12-11. (They also lost a game playing as the home team in Anaheim, making up a Dunedin rainout)
At Rogers Centre, behind a true home crowd in a big-league facility for the first time since 2019, they finished 25-11, and while they weren’t going to play .694 baseball for 81 home dates, they would have ended up better than the 47-34, or .580, they finished.