A year after fateful final day, Blue Jays clinch home field for wild-card series

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr., right, celebrates near the dugout with Teoscar Hernandez after hitting a solo home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the third inning of a baseball game. (Julio Cortez/AP)

BALTIMORE — On the morning of Oct. 3, 2021, Major League Baseball sent out a plan to bring order amid potential chaos. The possibility of a four-way tie, along with different combinations of three-way and two-way ties for the American League wild-card spots were in play ahead of Game 162, leaving a dizzying array of scenarios for the Toronto Blue Jays that fateful Sunday. A missive from the league laid it all out for everyone involved.

“There was a lot going on, we were trying to just take care of the game against Baltimore,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider recalled of that 12-4 win over the Orioles a year ago that put them in position to advance before victories by the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees ultimately left them one measly game short. “You were trying to check things off the box as they went, inning by inning in our game, and then inning by inning after our game was over. So you went from being really excited to the exact opposite in about 40 minutes. A lot of moving parts for sure.”

Precisely one year later, the situation was much more straight-forward for the Blue Jays as they once again met the Orioles, this time at Camden Yards on a miserably cold and rainy Monday night. Their wild-card berth already clinched this time, a 5-1, rain-shortened win over Baltimore combined with a Seattle Mariners loss three hours later locked in hosting rights for the playoff series.

Game 1 of the best-of-three against either the Mariners (87-72) or the Tampa Bay Rays (86-74) is Friday at Rogers Centre. Games 2 and, if necessary, 3 are also at the dome.

“We want to go home, we want to play the wild-card series in Toronto,” Whit Merrifield said after the Blue Jays grinded through the elements and awaited the final in Seattle. “Clinching the playoff spot was huge. Obviously, it’s what you strive to do from the get-go. But we knew what was at hand still and we knew we controlled that.”

Merrifield continued to deliver impact big and small, ripping a two-run single in the second and then dropping a bunt single in the fifth that forced a throwing error that put him on second, advancing to third on a groundout and scoring on a wild pitch. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., clubbed a monster 422-foot homer in the third and Matt Chapman tacked on an RBI single in the eighth, when play was halted with the bases loaded and two out, to support Jose Berrios, who allowed one run on three hits and three walks in six solid innings.

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It made for a good win under tough circumstances, beginning from an uncertain start time onwards.

“We were in our sweats playing cards at about 6:25 when their GM decided that it was (starting) on time – that was a challenge,” said Merrifield. “And then after that, we just joked around, calling it a blue-collar game. It’s not pretty. It’s not comfortable. It’s not fun a lot of times. It’s not easy. But … we know what we’re playing for – Baltimore had a great year, but at this point they’re not playing for much – it’s a game that we needed to win. To focus for seven innings like we did and do enough to win the game was big for us.”

The Blue Jays, at 91-69, matched their win total from a year ago and moved 3.5 games clear of the Mariners, who fell 4-3 to the Detroit Tigers. Seattle’s magic number to clinch the second wild card over Tampa Bay is two.

Now that home field is secured, the priority for the Blue Jays is figuring out whether Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — who did fielding work, plans to run the bases Tuesday and is aiming to “be ready to pinch hit and then we’ll take it from there” on Friday — and Santiago Espinal — who hit off the velo machine again — will be healthy enough for the post-season roster.

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Kevin Gausman, meanwhile, is feeling better after leaving Sunday’s start with a cut on his right middle finger and there are “no real concerns with him at this point,” said Schneider, peeling another item from the to-do list. Berrios’s performance while fighting for stability on the mound and for grip on the baseball, also bodes well after a season of highs and lows.

“The way I threw the ball,” said Berrios, “I had that good feeling, that confidence to keep up for the next one.”

Hence, the focus on home-field and the math was a whole lot more manageable compared to the spreadsheets needed to sort through the permutations last fall, which began with the Blue Jays needing a win and one of the Yankees or Red Sox to lose.

“I remember knowing the scenarios, for sure, and feeling pretty good going into the day. It’s baseball, somebody’s going to lose, right? Like, it can happen,” said Ross Stripling. “We didn’t like the matchups. I guess if you were to pick one, you’d probably would’ve guessed the Rays to beat the Yankees. But the Rays weren’t playing for anything because they already had the division. And the Nationals were the Nationals, but they were playing at home. So it was like, man, someone’s going to get one for us, right? To come all this way and come up a game, short? That’s not going to happen. Then obviously it did.”

The Blue Jays jumped out to an early lead against the Orioles that day, which made scoreboard watching “much easier to do,” said George Springer. “I remember turning back to look quite a bit that day and that’s not something that I would normally do.”

The Yankees beat the Rays 1-0 first, leaving the Nationals as the Blue Jays’ only hope. Once they wrapped up their win over the Orioles, the Red Sox game was put on the videoboard at Rogers Centre just in time for Rafael Devers’ go-ahead, two-run homer in the ninth, turning elation to dejection in an instant.

“It was just like, wow, we did everything that we could possibly do to put ourselves in the position and it just didn’t happen. It was deflating. It sucked,” said Springer. “You look back at everything that you’ve been through. This was our third city, finally getting a chance to be home. The ups, the downs, not really being projected to be where we were and ended up being in a really good spot at the end of the year. And just knowing that you fell one game short in the standings, you can look back on any game that you lost and say, well, if I had done this or if this had happened, you might not be in this position.

“But you learn from it and here we are now.”

Where they are now is set to host their first home playoff game since a 3-0 loss to Cleveland in Game 5 of the 2016 ALCS.

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