TORONTO – An example of how sometimes opposite things are simultaneously true can be found in the Toronto Blue Jays’ entire 2021 experience, and it’s important to examine the end of a season unlike any other through such a contradictory lens.
To some degree the gutting heartbreak of a gonzo Game 162 day – when their propitious 12-4 thrashing of the Baltimore Orioles that positioned them for a 163 was negated after last at-bat wins by both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox – is secondary.
For two-plus months after 670 days away, Major League Baseball returned to Toronto and restored a symbol of normalcy stripped by the pandemic. In the process, hundreds of people were reconnected to their jobs and a city was reconnected to its dispossessed team, creating the type of unifying shared experiences so needed in these troubling days of polarization.
A total of 604,835 fans took in the 36 home dates after the Blue Jays’ July 30 homecoming, hanging out on a hot summer’s day, watching a ballgame just like in the before times, almost as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. After all we’ve been, and still are, going through, that’s reward enough in and of itself.
At the same time, though, it’s really not, because damn did this group deserve a better fate.
That they finished one game back of wild card opponents Boston and New York, despite winning 91 games in the American League East, consistently the hardest division in North American pro sports, “really hurts me, really hurts all my teammates,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has a legitimate case for AL MVP, even over the wonder of Shohei Ohtani.
After getting back to Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays hit the gas, closing out the season 40-23, a period in which “we started to build a culture here,” said Marcus Semien, a foundational pillar for that growth. “We became, in my opinion, the best team in baseball. But it was just a tick too late.”
The playoffs would have offered the proper testing ground for that assertion, but no other team in the big leagues spent four months sheltering in minor-league facilities, called three different cities home and faced all the accompanying challenges. At several points, the Blue Jays suffered spirit-crushing setbacks, especially during a May 21-24 Tampa Bay Rays sweep in Dunedin, Fla., when the winning runs scored in the last at-bat three times and during the eighth inning in the other contest.
To their credit, they refused to be broken.
“Confidence in ourselves. Confidence in our teammates. Pride probably has something with it, too. We weren't going to let unfortunate circumstances affect how our season went,” Bo Bichette said of what allowed them to overcome. “There were a lot of losses early on that were tough to take, losing with fans cheering against you at home, stuff like that. After the game, you come in and it sucked more than a normal May loss, you know? I'm just proud of how everybody fought through it.”
Still, their 2021 catalogue contains at least a dozen, even twice that perhaps, other lamentable losses in which one pitch, one swing or one play would have changed the outcome. Up until a 2-2 series at the Minnesota Twins last weekend, they were still in control of their own fate.
That left them needing a 6-0 final week to win a wild card spot outright, or 5-1 to secure a tiebreaker. They went 4-2.
“Proud of the way we fought, proud of the way we finished,” said Bichette. “At the end of the day, though, with everything we went through, we held the cards pretty late in the season. We had our opportunities and we didn't get it done. So we'll just learn from it and come back next year ready to go.”
A pivotal lesson in that regard is that while those April and May losses don’t hit in quite the same way, they really do count just as much as the ones in August and September.
“We need to keep doing what we've been doing, understanding who we are as a team,” said George Springer, the prized free-agent signing who — if not limited to 79 games by injury — would surely have provided the needed margin. “A 91-win season is still something to be unbelievably proud of, but it just shows you how hard this division is, how hard the American League is and how hard this is in general to do. For next year, we need to figure out how to win one more than somebody else.”
Complicating that are the bigger-picture questions the Blue Jays now face, chief among them the pending free agencies of Semien, an absolute MVP-calibre talent who signed an $18-million, one-year deal, and Robbie Ray, arguably the Cy Young Award favourite after re-signing for $8 million.
Lefty Steven Matz, who delivered an underappreciated 2.7 fWAR, can also hit the free-agent market, meaning the Blue Jays may need to replace their No. 2 hitter along with 2/5ths of a rotation that was their backbone. They’ll also have to wrestle with how to improve the roster while factoring in that both Guerrero and Bichette will eventually need mega-deals, and that if they hope to extend Teoscar Hernandez, the time is nigh with only two more years of club control.
After years of “would it ever come out” doubts, Ray finally put his game together this year, reducing the walks, increasing his strikeouts and flat out overpowering opponents.
“It was really fun,” he said and while he added that returning to the Blue Jays is a consideration, he was largely boilerplate when discussing his free agency.
“My main focus has been on this year,” he said. “As of right now, I'm still a little bummed about going home.”
Semien, a member of the players association’s influential executive sub-committee who will be busy with the expiring labour agreement this winter, offered a bit more insight into his thinking, noting the various elements that factor in.
But, he also added: “We had the best offence in the major leagues and in my mind, the best starting pitching in the game. How could you not want to be a part of that?”
“Obviously, when you have those things set in stone, there are little pieces to add to get to the next level,” he added. “I'm one of them. I think our bullpen is another one. We also have young guys getting better, so let's see what happens. But I had a great time here. I love the facility and everything that they offered for me to do what I need to do to get ready for a game. And that's all I can ask for sure.”
The competition for him, even in what should be an historic free-agent shortstop market, will be fierce and the San Francisco Giants are expected to try and lure the Bay Area native back home. During the Blue Jays’ recent series in Tampa, they had a senior front office member there to advance scout the Rays, but surely also to keep an eye on Semien.
Money, of course, talks, but so too will his Toronto experience and of the things that will tug at him when it’s decision time, “the passion of the fans is one.”
“Every game for this last week felt like a playoff game,” Semien continued. “And you saw the results from us as an offence when you have that energy and you're just more hyped and every pitch counts. I can remember back in Oakland where we're in the race and the energy wasn't what we had here, to put it lightly. As a player, you feed off that energy. It's the most fun you can ever have at this level, and it really was a playoff atmosphere.”
What might have been if the Blue Jays had that all season?
They finished 25-11 at Rogers Centre, and while they weren’t going to play .694 baseball for 81 home dates, they would have ended up better than the 47-34, or .580, they finished. (The Blue Jays were 10-11 at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, 12-11 at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field and lost a game playing as the home team in Anaheim, making up an April rainout.)
Of course, what if the Blue Jays had a better bullpen, and didn’t have to roll the dice on Joel Payamps, Travis Bergen, Anthony Castro, Jeremy Beasley, Jacob Barnes and C.J. Edwards in leverage? Or give Tyler Chatwood and Rafael Dolis the type of runway they did?
Or what if Springer, Cavan Biggio and Nate Pearson had just been healthy all year?
Manager Charlie Montoyo refused to play the what-if game when asked.
“Nothing,” was his reply when asked for his list. “Playing on the road for 200-something days, yeah, you could say you lost here and there, but, I mean, 91 wins, first time in history that a division's got four teams with over 90 wins, what are you going to do? We played great. I'm so proud of this team. First full year (in the majors for several key players), there's nothing, nothing to look back at.
"I'm just proud of them. Three different cities, too. We should not forget that because it wasn't easy. The hardship and playing home games that were not home games for us.”
And therein lies the rub. The 2021 season for the Blue Jays was fun and maddening, rewarding and unsatisfying, successful and disappointing, a moment seized and a missed opportunity, contradictions somehow both true at the same time.