With sports on pause as the world tries to slow the spread of COVID-19, there are still ways to fill the void created by the lack of games. In order to provide a distraction from the much more serious things going on in the world, Sportsnet’s Blue Jays radio broadcaster Mike Wilner will be simulating each scheduled Blue Jays game in what was supposed to have been the 2020 season and providing weekly updates in this space. You can follow the games as they happen on Twitter @Wilnerness590. The simulation is being done using Dynasty League Baseball Powered By Pursue The Pennant, a cards-and-dice tabletop (and online) simulation game, with player performance based on 2019 statistics.
In real life, Toronto Blue Jays fans feel a sense of dread when their team is about to embark on a series at Tropicana Field. John Gibbons once famously referred to the home of the Tampa Bay Rays as a “House of Horrors”, and it feels like no matter how good the Jays are and how bad the Rays are, nothing goes well there. Never mind when the Rays are good and the Jays are bad.
It seems as though our simulation is aware of that, too, as the week that was began with the Blue Jays kicking off a three-game set at The Trop and, save for one inning, scoring a grand total of two runs over the three games.
In the opener, Blue Jays’ bats wasted a brilliant performance by Trent Thornton, who threw seven innings of two-hitter, allowing just one run. Problem was, the Jays only scored one run themselves – a second-inning solo shot by Rowdy Tellez.
From that point on, the Blue Jays managed just two hits, both by Danny Jansen, over the next nine innings before the Rays walked it off in the 11th off Sam Gaviglio. Hunter Renfroe walked, went to second on a ground ball to the right side, and scored on a single by Willy Adames for a 2-1 Rays win.
The next day, the script was the same. Starter throws brilliantly, the team only scores once in regulation. But at least there was a happier ending.
This time, it was Hyun-Jin Ryu who was tremendous on the mound, going nine innings and only allowing one unearned run, thanks to a Brandon Lowe sacrifice fly that followed a two-base error by Bo Bichette. The one run of support came from Bo, a solo homer off Yonny Chirinos in the third, so the Jays’ shortstop was even for the day, at least.
Remember how I said the Jays scored twice in the series save for one inning? That one inning was the tenth inning of this game. The rally started with two out and a runner on first against Jalen Beeks, pressed into action as the extra-inning long man after Tampa Bay used six different relievers to win the opener. Cavan Biggio singled off the lefty and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. walked to load the bases, bringing Teoscar Hernandez off the bench to bat for Travis Shaw. Hernandez delivered a two-run single to put the Blue Jays on top, and Tellez followed with a three-run homer as he continues to go toe-to-toe with Bichette for the club home run lead in the simulation. The five-run frame gave the Jays a 6-1 win to even the series.
The big tenth-inning rally didn’t carry over to the series finale, though, as the Jays managed just five singles (two by Biggio), and only got two runners as far as second base in the entire game, stymied by Blake Snell and three Rays’ relievers.
Tanner Roark was pretty good, too, but he had one little bump in the road that was enough for the Rays to build the winning rally. The righty took a two-hit shutout into the sixth, having retired 13 straight Tampa Bay hitters, but he walked Joey Wendle with one out. Wendle stole second and, with two out, scored on a single by Yandy Diaz. That would have been enough, as it turned out, but Ji-Man Choi followed the RBI single with a two-run homer, just for good measure. A 3-0 Rays win gave them the series and the Blue Jays moved off to Baltimore for the weekend.
One could be forgiven for looking at a series against the lowly Orioles as a chance to pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off and start all over again. That’s because that’s usually the way it goes. The Orioles were awful last season and will be awful again whenever baseball starts back up. But that’s not the way the simulation went.
In the opener, the Blue Jays’ bats were stymied once again, this time by their former farmhand Asher Wojciechowski, who threw six innings of two-hit shutout before giving way to the bullpen.
Matt Shoemaker, who has been far and away the Jays’ best starter in the simulation so far, had allowed one run going into the sixth when he issued a pair of walks and a single to load the bases with one out. A ground ball scored an insurance run, then Chris Davis hit a catchable line drive to centre but Biggio, making a rare start there in an effort to boost the sagging offence, lost it in the lights for a two-run double that put the Jays down 4-0.
That mistake loomed large when the Blue Jays rallied for three runs in the top of the eighth, the big blow being a two-out, two-run pinch-double by Randal Grichuk.
Down by a run in the ninth, Hernandez drew a one-out walk and took an aggressive lead against Orioles’ closer Mychal Givens, who is very slow to the plate. And got picked off. Biggio followed with a single and not only didn’t get picked off but stole second and went to third as catcher Chance Sisco threw the ball away. With the tying run just 90 feet away, Guerrero grounded out to end a 4-3 Orioles win.
Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. was the hitting star of the middle game of the series. He doubled and scored (on a Guerrero single) in the first to give the Jays the early lead and, after the Orioles went ahead with a two-run rally in the fifth, homered in the sixth to tie it right back up. Guerrero followed the home run with a single, but that was the last hit the Jays would get.
Rafael Dolis, who had recorded four blown saves in his first 15 appearances in the simulation, came on to protect the tie in the bottom of the eighth and the first man he faced, Renato Nunez, took him deep. Later in the inning, a walk and a two-out RBI double by D.J. Stewart provided insurance the O’s wouldn’t need as former Blue Jay Miguel Castro threw a perfect ninth to preserve a 4-2 win.
Could the Orioles sweep away the Blue Jays? In a word, yes.
Thornton got off to a great start, holding Baltimore hitless for the first three innings of the series finale, including striking out the side in the third. But he completely lost it in the fourth inning. After a leadoff double by Anthony Santander, Thornton issued consecutive walks to load the bases with nobody out. He then threw a wild pitch, allowing a run to score. Then he threw another wild pitch, allowing another run to score. Then he hit the batter to whom he had thrown two wild pitches. Before Sam Gaviglio could get in to bail him out, the Orioles had a 3-0 lead, which was more than they would need.
The Jays’ only run of the game came on another Gurriel homer, his ninth of the sim.
The sweep in Baltimore dropped the Jays to 1-5 on the road trip that continues for a couple of games in St. Louis to open this week, and they wound up 11-18 for the month of May for an overall mark of 24-36 that translates to 99 losses over the course of a full season.
The problem, obviously, is the hitting. A .233 team batting average is far more than suboptimal, and the Blue Jays’ club OPS that’s barely above .700 is worse than every A.L. team but the 114-loss Detroit Tigers posted last year.
The simulation has been cruel so far, to be sure, with only Joe Panik and Travis Shaw outperforming their 2019 OPS and with several others, including Hernandez (.170), Gurriel (.143), Bichette (.117), Jansen (.110) and Biggio (.103) posting an OPS more than 100 points below what they put together in 2019. It’s fair to say that in real life, we expected all but Bichette to be better this season, and that’s only because Bichette set his bar so high.
So we know there’s more in there, and it should come out as the simulation moves along. It can’t come soon enough.
Each Blue Jays game is being simulated on the day it was supposed to have been played, usually in the late afternoon for scheduled night games, early afternoon for day games – follow along every day on Twitter @wilnerness590 to “watch” the simulated season until (if) the real thing gets started!