Second straight ALCS defeat may signal end of Blue Jays’ 15-month party

The pitching of the Cleveland Indians shut down the Toronto Blue Jays on their way to winning the American League Championship Series and moving on to the World Series.

Those with a better worldview than mine make the point that it’s impossible to feel gratitude and longing at the same time. If you make the effort to feel truly grateful for all you’ve been given, you can’t honestly be upset about what you don’t have.

It’s something a yoga instructor might say, granted, and might be thin gruel for a nation of Toronto Blue Jays fans right now as they sort through the wreckage of the ALCS where the team sputtered and heaved and stumbled and failed in all kinds of ways.

But it’s all you’ve got for now. The Blue Jays season is over, and more significantly, this era of Blue Jays baseball, the one where the script flipped almost overnight from tumbleweeds blowing around the Rogers Centre on a Tuesday night to 15 months of Toronto and Canada re-emerging as one of the most dynamic baseball markets in the game, might be over too.

This team as constructed the past couple of years may soon be no more. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, the foundation pieces of since-departed Alex Anthopoulos’ gambit to make the Blue Jays relevant are – you may have heard – free agents. You would like to think leading the AL in attendance would raise enough money to bring them back if president Mark Shapiro wanted them back, but no one knows anything at this point and time marches on.

The Blue Jays’ clubhouse, home to multiple champagne celebrations the past two years, was funereal after their 3-0 Game 5 defeat sealed their loss to Cleveland in the ALCS, the second time they stopped short of the World Series in as many years.

Instead of beer showers and goggles, there were moving boxes and the kind of big, emotional back-slappy hugs men give each other when they’ve been through something and they know it’s over.

How did Encarnacion feel walking off the field at Rogers Centre after striking out in the bottom of the ninth in what quite possibly was the final plate appearance as a Blue Jay?

“To be honest I’m really sad,” said through an interpreter, “because I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Millions of Blue Jays fans feel exactly the same way.

The Blue Jays lost to a Cleveland team that started journeyman Josh Tomlin in Game 2, used seven pitchers in Game 3, a tired Corey Kluber in Game 4 and a rookie named Ryan Something-or-other (Merritt) in Game 5, who had pitched 11 MLB innings before Wednesday and topped out at 86 on the radar gun. Of course he held them to one hit and of course Bautista, who had predicted the day before that the rookie would be shaking in his boots, was hitless in two at-bats against him.

Toronto’s pitching held Cleveland to 12 runs and they lost four games out of five. So yes, the bile rising in the gut of Blue Jays nation isn’t without merit. This was a team with an excellent chance to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1993 and they didn’t even come close to taking advantage of it.

And making it perhaps just that much harder to stomach is that it’s not immediately evident how they get this far again. Few elite teams can lose a bat like Bautista’s – and injuries and post-season performance notwithstanding, he was still on pace for 30 home runs and 96 RBIs for a full season – let alone Encarnacion’s and remain elite.

A big part of what was driving the sense of urgency as the Blue Jays scraped and stumbled down the stretch trying to maintain their grip on a wild-card spot was that this might be the last best chance for this group to win something.

And now it’s gone.

“It’s disappointing to get so close and not be able to win,” said Bautista. “As a player and as a team, when you feel like you have a chance and you don’t get it done it’s disappointing. It’s not a great feeling.”

But even as the missed opportunities remain a fresh wound, it’s worth remembering the found money quality of the last 14 months, how a team that was 50-51 on July 28th last year turned into the baseball equivalent of discovering a crumpled lottery ticket in your winter jacket and suddenly finding yourself with enough cash to quit work and spend a year lounging in a cabana, drunk if you chose.

The Blue Jays were stranded in the middle of nowhere in late July of 2015, their tank on empty, the radiator light on and not a tow truck in sight. They were on the verge of another year like so many since their glory days – not awful, definitely not great. Boring really.

And then lightning struck in the form of the Aug. 1 trade deadline and the Blue Jays have played baseball at a 96-win clip since, with consecutive trips to the ALCS and a long-list of electric moments along the way.

For the past 15 months, they have been the sports lingua franca in a diverse city and the common thread for sports fans in a huge country that doesn’t always see things the same way.

“When this building is full it either seems like playoff baseball or it is playoff baseball. It’s one of the loudest I’ve ever heard,” said reliever Brett Cecil, drafted by the Blue Jays in 2007 and another free agent who may not return. “I’ve experienced it in the bullpen, I’ve experienced it in the dugout, I’ve experienced it walking off the mound. It’s a great feeling. I’ve been here when there’s a group of fans behind home plate and that’s it. If I don’t come back, seeing this place full is what I’m going to miss.”

And how they got even to that stage is more remarkable. Bautista will likely end up on the franchise’s ring of honour – not bad for a spare-part journeyman who had never hit more than 16 home runs in his first six major-league seasons. Encarnacion was a throw-in in a Scott Rolen salary dump in 2009, and the Blue Jays once waived him before he emerged as one of the best run producers in all of MLB.

The off-season of 2013 was supposed to be the start of the new-era Blue Jays, when former GM Alex Anthopoulos accelerated his prospect mining strategy and made two massive trades that had everyone believing Toronto was a contender.

It was a massive flop – remember when there were pre-season talks about Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow as possible Cy Young candidates?

It looked like the Blue Jays were never going to get anywhere. The 2014 season was like a tree that fell in a forest of empty seats, or seats filled with frustrated die-hards. The Blue Jays’ run of 22 seasons without a playoff appearance seemed poised to never end.

And then it did. Completely out of nowhere. And a party started and millions dropped everything and showed up with beer. Only one guy threw any of them. And now after lots of champagne and bat flips and walk-offs and Josh Donaldson adrenalin rushes, it’s over.

It’s sad. But sometimes the platitude fits. Knowing the alternative, you can only be grateful it happened in the first place.

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