TORONTO – An apt reminder from Charlie Montoyo to his Toronto Blue Jays in recent days is that “pressure is a privilege,” and it’s certainly a relevant mantra as a week of wrenching, high-stake action looms.
Six games left, one game back of the second wild card, two games back of the first means the margin for error is perilously small for the manager’s club before the finish line.
The only way for the Blue Jays (87-69) to remain fully in control of their fate is to sweep the New York Yankees (89-67), the current wild card leaders, in the series at Rogers Centre beginning Tuesday.
Anything less than that and external help will be needed, either from the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays to catch the Yankees, or the Baltimore Orioles and/or Washington Nationals to catch the Boston Red Sox (88-68), who are currently in possession of the second wild card.
And, at the other end of the spectrum, a sweep by New York this week could extinguish the Blue Jays’ post-season hopes entirely.
So, into the crucible they go for Tuesday’s opener, when Hyun Jin Ryu is expected to return from the injured list and take the ball against Jameson Taillon. It’s Jose Berrios versus Gerrit Cole and Robbie Ray against Corey Kluber in the games to follow.
“They have already gone through these (type of must-win) games for a month, month and a half,” Montoyo said over the weekend after the Blue Jays salvaged a four-game split at the Minnesota Twins. “They like being in moments like that. I go back to pressures is a privilege and they earned the right to be in this moment, and that's great.”
The Yankees, coming off a sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway Park, arrive having won six straight to take control of the wild-card race, so taking all three from them may be a tall order. Boston, which had won seven in a row before New York arrived, gets a chance to regroup at Baltimore.
As things play out, here are some scenarios to keep in mind:
Catching the Yankees
A sweep of the Yankees is the clearest path to a wild card for the Blue Jays. Taking all three games would put them up a game on New York and combined with another sweep of the Orioles this weekend, clinch them a playoff berth, regardless of what else happens. A sweep also creates a tiny margin for error against Baltimore this weekend, allowing Toronto to go 2-1 versus the Orioles and reach at least a tiebreaker without external help.
Taking two of three from the Yankees would leave the Blue Jays one back of the Yankees and would require the Rays to take at least one game from New York this weekend. Should the Blue Jays drop two of three, the Yankees would be three up and only a Rays sweep would allow them to be caught for a tiebreaker. A Yankees sweep would clinch them a post-season berth and give the Red Sox a chance to eliminate the Blue Jays as well if they win their next three.
Catching the Red Sox
The Blue Jays, no matter what they do, need some help to catch the Red Sox, who are at Baltimore and Washington to finish the campaign. If Boston goes 6-0, they can’t be caught. At 5-1, only a perfect week from the Blue Jays would be enough to catch them.
A week of 5-1 or better is certainly in the realm for the Red Sox, who are 12-4 so far this season against the 50-106 Orioles, along with 42-20 while posting an .841 OPS versus opponents under .500. The Nats are 65-92 but can’t be taken lightly, as the Blue Jays can attest after dropping a pair in Washington in August. Maybe the 2019 champions have another upset series in them, but the Blue Jays shouldn’t count on that.
In the rear-view mirror
Seattle (87-70) is the team that just won’t go away, sitting one game back of the Blue Jays in the standings. Unlike their expansion cousins, the Mariners can’t sneak into a wild-card spot without help, as even a 6-0 homestand against Oakland (85-72) and the Angels would leave them two games short absent losses from the teams ahead of them. The Athletics, after visiting Seattle, close out at Houston. Whoever wins the Seattle-Oakland series will likely knock out the other team, and all that club can do is pile up wins and hope someone in front of them stumbles.
Given how tight the standings are, tiebreakers are certainly a possibility and there are a number of different scenarios. To keep this from getting too complicated, we’re going to assume no more than a three-way tie. By virtue of winning the season series against both the Blue Jays and Yankees (10-9 against both), the Red Sox hold the tiebreaker over both clubs, while the Blue Jays (clinched at 10-6 so far), hold the tiebreak over the Yankees.
So, if Boston and one of Toronto or New York ended up tied for the two wild-card berths, the game would be at Fenway Park. If the Blue Jays and Yankees end up tied for the two wild-card berths, they’d end up at Rogers Centre. The same would apply to home-field advantage for a Game 163 tiebreaker if one of the three clinched one berth, and the other two teams tied for the second berth.
If all three teams end up tied for the two wild-card spots, the teams would be assigned A, B and C designations, with Boston getting first pick and Toronto second based on season-series records. Club A would then host Club B, with the winner going directly to the wild-card game. The loser would then visit Club C to determine the other wild-card spot. The Blue Jays, presumably, would elect to be Team B rather than Team C, taking two chances on the road to advance rather than one chance at home.