TORONTO – In terms of strange ways to clinch a post-season berth, the Toronto Blue Jays have very much been here before.
Take 2015 for instance, when on Sept. 25 they went to bed after a 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays believing their magic number stood at one only to wake up to news that a convoluted tiebreaker scenario had locked them into at least a wild-card berth. They later clinched the American League East in the first game of a doubleheader at Camden Yards and had to wait out the nightcap before engaging in a rowdy shake-and-spray.
Even weirder was the pandemic season of 2020, when the Blue Jays booked their post-season spot by beating the New York Yankees 4-1 at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, where the stands were empty save for 2,857 cardboard fan cut-outs.
Given those scenarios, locking in a 2022 wild-card spot on an off-day thanks to a 5-3 Boston Red Sox win over the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday afternoon is relatively tame by comparison, even if odd nonetheless.
Blue Jays players had debated whether to gather as a group to celebrate if the Red Sox did them a favour ahead of their visit to Rogers Centre on Friday, deciding instead to preserve the sanctity of rare and needed late September off-day.
The tentative plan to was to party post-game Friday, when Alek Manoah is slated to take the ball against Nick Pivetta. Unusual clinch or not, interim manager John Schneider said before Wednesday’s 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees that every moment was worthy of feting.
“That's the best part of baseball, celebrating what you've accomplished,” he said. “You don't want to ever take anything for granted in this game. Every point that you reach was a goal you should definitely celebrate.”
A clinch has been inevitable since a 13-4 stretch to open September, including a 5-2 mark versus the Orioles, ensconced them into a post-season berth. They’ve cooled some since at 4-6 over the past 10 games, but winning in September is hard and the teams around them in the wild-card race have been treading water, too.
"We've gone through stretches but we're still playing some good baseball,” said reliever Tim Mayza, the longest-tenured Blue Jays player. “The last two nights obviously didn't go quite the way that we would like. But guys are going to take the off day rest up and Friday we'll come back refocused, re-energized and go and attack the Red Sox.”
No matter what others do Thursday, the Blue Jays will head into their final six games in possession of the top wild-card spot, which would earn them home-field advantage in a series against the second-place finisher.
Locking that down leaves them lots to play for.
“You want to get in,” said Schneider, “but you also want to put yourself in position to have the best possible spot to play at home and all that kind of stuff. So it's a multi-layered process for sure.”
There are a few ways to look at the odd clinch, which comes after a trying season in which the Blue Jays swung through highs and lows, fired manager Charlie Montoyo on July 13 and eventually found their bearings under interim manager John Schneider.
The bumpy road to the ninth post-season in franchise history is the first in a full season for the young core fronted by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.
"In 2020, I don't think we had the full experience,” said Bichette, which is why he wasn’t going to complain about the berth this year, no matter how they got there.
“We would probably like to have a little bit more spur-of-the-moment excitement, but as long as we make it, that's all that matters,” he said. “Hopefully we get to celebrate it with the fans. That'll be cool.”
For his part, Guerrero said he was “feeling good” about where the Blue Jays stood didn’t want “to think about (clinching) much because when you think about things like that, you get a little bit anxious and I don't want that. I want to take it day by day, game by game, and we'll see. Whenever it happens, we'll talk about that.”
The ideal scenario is a clinch on the field and an organic celebration in which the tensions and stress that accumulate over a long season can be released. Still, there’s nothing wrong with something pre-planned when an opponent does you a solid, either.
"We play every day and it's hard,” said Schneider. “The guys that play 162 appreciate the fact that you're one of the few teams standing after that mark. That's how it's always been. I really like that. I appreciate that. It's such a long season that you have to take a step back and appreciate where you are.”