TORONTO – Even after finishing their regular season home schedule with one of the more decisive sweeps you’ll see, the Blue Jays have no guarantees of returning to Rogers Centre.
They’ve clinched a playoff spot, yes, but a road wild-card series in Seattle remains in play with no guarantee of a return home. That means the Blue Jays will fly to Baltimore for their final regular season series without knowing whether they’ll be back to host playoff games next weekend, stay on the road until midway through the ALDS or leave for the winter only to return on April 11, 2023 against the Tigers.
Sunday’s series finale – a 6-3 win over the Red Sox – nudged the Blue Jays further ahead in their pursuit of the top AL wild-card spot, though Kevin Gausman exited after just three innings due to a cut on his right middle finger that shouldn’t prevent him from making his next start.
Still, the Blue Jays are certainly well positioned to return home this year, and if they do they’ll have the chance to bridge some of the disconnect that emerged after a rebuild and a pandemic. After all, it’s been six years since the Blue Jays last played a home playoff game here – not an insignificant chunk of time. Should the Blue Jays get the chance to play at home regularly, the buzz around the team would inevitably build far beyond where it is right now.
“Multiply that times about ten,” said Blue Jays president Shapiro. “And that's kind of what it will feel like if we can play postseason games here. So yeah, it's an important part. The next step is repairing what – it was no one's fault – but what we experienced the last couple of years. There was a level of detachment. And that was that was the nature of what we went through … so getting those games here would be a big part of it.”
One of those games would ideally feature Gausman, whose first season as a Blue Jay ends after 174.2 innings with a 3.35 ERA and a team-leading 205 strikeouts. He now has somewhere between five and seven days to make sure his finger is ready, depending on how the Blue Jays line things up.
“With the post-season coming, I didn’t want to make it any worse,” Gausman said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened in my last regular season starts, but now I’ve got some time to get it right.”
In the coming days, Gausman expects to get laser treatment on the cut, which is beside the fingernail. The irritation occurs when he throws his splitter, but he said he would have stayed in the game if this were the playoffs.
"Just trying to play it safe," manager John Schneider added. "We’re not too concerned."
Once Gausman departed, the Blue Jays’ bullpen was stellar with Zach Pop, Adam Cimber, Anthony Bass, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano combining to allow just one run over six innings to give the Blue Jays a 16-3 record against Boston this year.
Offensively, the Blue Jays were led by Teoscar Hernandez and Whit Merrifield. Hernandez homered in each of his first two trips to the plate, giving him 25 on the season to go along with an .811 OPS.
As for Merrifield, he hit his 11th homer of the season in the third before adding an RBI single and a double. Sunday also marked his ninth consecutive start at second base after beginning his Blue Jays tenure in a part-time role. Even if Santiago Espinal returns from the injured list in the coming days, the second base job appears to be Merrifield’s as long as he keeps hitting.
“It’s not about whether I’m comfortable, it’s about winning games,” Merrifield said afterwards. “I’m just glad to contribute.”
“He’s showing the player he has been in the course of his career,” Schneider said. “He’s been exactly what we hoped for … a huge spark.”
A crowd of 43,877 took in the Rogers Centre regular-season finale, raising the season average to 32,763. That’s the seventh-best average in MLB and considerably more than the 1,750,144 the Blue Jays drew in 2019, their last full season in Toronto, but still less than what they drew in 2015 (2,794,891), 2016 (3,392,099) or 2017 (3,203,886).
Sunday’s crowd saw the Blue Jays win their 90th game with three games against the Orioles remaining starting Monday. That’ll give the team the chance to surpass last year’s total of 91, but this already marks just the second time in franchise history the Blue Jays have had a stretch of consecutive 90-win seasons (they also did so from 1991-93).
Beyond the fans, there’s a benefit to the players who experience the full intensity of Toronto’s home crowds. As Gerrit Cole can attest, that intensity still comes through at times, but there’s a reason the likes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have reached out to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to tell him there’s more to come.
“That's another big step in re-engaging the fan base and having our players feel what the true meaning of home can be,” Shapiro said. “We've had some pretty incredible moments over the past few years reminding us of what home can mean. But even this week, we still haven't really felt the power of this building. For this group of players that's still either largely young or have not been here in that setting, I want them to feel it. And I want to re-engage the city and the country the way we did six, seven years ago. That'll be the next step.”
Soon, we’ll know when that next step can take place. After all the patience Blue Jays fans have shown in recent years, let’s hope the wait for playoff baseball in Toronto doesn’t last much longer.