After unforgettable year, Blue Jays show reason for optimism in 2022

Sportsnet looks back at the top 10 best Blue Jays plays from the 2021 season.

It’s said there is an old curse that wishes for you to “live in interesting times,” and it’s hard to conceive of a more interesting year in the life of the Toronto Blue Jays than 2021.

Pondering the events and achievements of the Blue Jays’ 2021 season, it is easy to be surprised at just how momentous the season was. With a bit of time and distance, and as we turn the page on this calendar year, it’s equally possible to view 2021 as a missed opportunity, and as an unlikely achievement.

There were a multitude of built-in excuses for the Blue Jays to have an unremarkable season, not the least of which was the prolonged impact of the pandemic on their season. While every other team in the league began to return to something resembling normal, with stadiums partially or fully packed, border restrictions compelled the Jays to make the best of their minor league accommodations for an extended period.

Aside from the inconvenience, they played many “home” games early in the season with the stadium packed with fans of their division rivals jeering them with increasing vociferousness in the later innings. At least the team managed to make something back of the refreshment sales.

A 91-win season that was only good enough for a fourth-place finish is somehow fitting for this topsy-turvy year. As is having two legitimate MVP candidates finish second and third respectively to a player having a once-in-a-century season.

A Blue Jays pitcher brought home the Cy Young Award this season, and it wasn’t the staff ace they signed the previous year, nor their top pitching prospect emerging to dominance. Rather, it was Robbie Ray, a marginal lefty who signed a one-year pillow contract that was barely noticed amongst the greater free agent ambitions.

When we look back on this year, it will be hard not to remember a season filled with energetic grunts, nasty sliders, and a uniform so tightly packed that the seams appeared persistently in peril of exploding even more than Ray’s fastball out of his southpaw. It was such a memorable season that it’s easy to forget that Ray concluded his spring training by injuring himself falling down the stairs with a baby in his hands.

That Ray has left just as quickly makes the whole thing feel like something of a mirage.

Something that came into a more tangible focus this year was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who entered the season as something of a question mark given the sky-high expectations, and a performance in his first two campaigns that teased and tormented fans.

In the early parts of the year, somewhere in your Instagram feeds, Guerrero Jr.’s figure seemed to take up fewer pixels on your screen as he sweated through a series of offseason workouts. It was encouraging, but fans know enough to wait for someone’s “best shape” to translate into tangible results.

But Vladdy delivered, instantly looking better in all aspects of his game. So much so, in fact, that fans remained somewhat apprehensive, even as he flirted with the Triple Crown and looked flexible and balletic at first base. It may have taken until he was elected to start and win the All-Star Game MVP before fans started to recognize that this was more than an extended hot streak. The Superstar that was promised had arrived, and while the MVP was out of reach this year, his trophy case was filled with a slew of other awards, from Silver Sluggers and the first team All-MLB, to being recognized as the best baseball player of the year from two countries, both the Dominican Republic and Canada.

In many calendar years, signing a player to the single largest contract in team history would probably rate as a highlight, but this year, it’s arguably a marginal footnote given all the other struggles and achievements.

The Blue Jays somewhat surprisingly locked up George Springer, maybe the best position player on the market, for seven years. Springer battled injuries throughout the season, and his on-field performance suffered as a result. Still, Springer hit 22 homers and drove in 50 runs in 78 games, posting a .907 OPS in that half-season. And he was the author of one of the Jays’ most memorable moments, hitting a three-run, go-ahead homer to cap a comeback win on August 8th against the Boston Red Sox, helping keep the team in the race for a playoff berth.

The season’s other remarkable comeback win came off the bat of Marcus Semien, in a September 3rd matchup against his old team, the Oakland A’s. Semien walked off with a three-run homer in the ninth, helping the Jays to keep pace with the A’s and the Mariners in the chase for the final playoff spot. It was one of 45 homers that Semien would hit, establishing a new record for second basemen, a milestone that might stand out more in any other season.

But 2021 was not like any other season, just as 2021 was unlike any other year that we will ever remember. Fans approached the season with muted hope, as the challenges of a second year under COVID continued to stress and strain at our mental and physical well-being. Still, the Jays remained a welcome distraction, even from the distance created by a closed border.

When the team finally returned to Canada on Friday, July 30th, it was an emotional moment for fans, and a turning point for the team. Seeing manager Charlie Montoyo welling up with tears at the reception from the fifty-percent capacity crowd, or Vladdy turning to provide a hug to the woman known affectionately as “Home Plate Lady”, or Santiago Espinal’s ridiculous bare-handed catch to conclude that day are memories that would be hard to describe without all of the context of the moment, as well as everything the team and the fans withstood this past year.

That the Blue Jays would go 40-23 from that point of the season only helped to leave the fan base with some level of optimism for what comes next.

If you insist on relitigating the negative, then, yes, the Blue Jays bullpen will stand out both for its erratic performance and its poor health. In a season where one game was the margin between going home or moving on, every or any misstep along the way can feel as though it is that much more meaningful, and the relief corps had more than their share.

But as we look ahead to 2022, there’s reason for optimism, whenever baseball gets started again. Aside from Guerrero, there’s Bo Bichette, who led the American League in hits, and made his first All-Star appearance. There’s the arrival and re-signing of José Berrios, and the emergence of Alek Manoah at the front of the rotation. Not to mention the December signing of Kevin Gausman as a potential replacement for Ray.

As we move forward, 2021 will be a year with too many specific details to remember, but too many moments that we’ll never forget. And with everything that emerged out of such a tumultuous season, there are interesting times ahead.

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