Blue Jays have key decisions to make in coming days as post-season nears

TORONTO -- Just one year after losing 95 games, the Blue Jays are back in the playoffs despite never playing a game in their home ballpark. Sure, they got some assistance when MLB expanded the post-season, but every team had that opportunity and not all of them made the most of it.

It’s an accomplishment to savour -- and also an opportunity to seize. The playoffs are notoriously unpredictable, after all, and that’ll be especially true in a year that begins with a best-of-three series. It’s a good time to be an underdog.

Now that the Blue Jays have clinched, they have four days to prepare for their next test, but the last three regular season games are significant in themselves. In theory, the Blue Jays could pass the Yankees and overtake the No. 5 seed in the American League. And if nothing else, these last few games will inform roster moves and playing time decisions for the wild-card round that begins Tuesday.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake for the Blue Jays between now and Sunday afternoon’s regular season finale…

What can Pearson offer in the playoffs?

In theory, Nate Pearson has the pitches to become an important high-leverage arm for the Blue Jays, but translating that potential to results with limited time to spare is another matter. That adds significance to his late-season appearances as the Blue Jays consider how to use him in the playoffs.

“I wouldn’t mind using him in high-leverage, but he could also open for us if we need him,” manager Charlie Montoyo said after officially activating Pearson Thursday.

Either way, it stands to reason Pearson will be on the Blue Jays’ playoff roster as long as he makes it through his upcoming tune-up session healthy.

Can anyone else return from the injured list?

Along with Pearson, Jordan Romano (finger), Julian Merryweather (elbow) and Rowdy Tellez (knee) are each working their way back from injuries as well. All would be big additions, and the coming weekend offers a perfect chance to get some reps in at game speed, yet it’d be a surprise if any of those three see game action against the Orioles.

Romano, who will throw a bullpen session Friday, may be furthest along of those three. And while the Blue Jays were set on seeing Pearson in a regular season game, Romano doesn’t have a new role to get used to, so he doesn’t necessarily have to pitch in a game over the weekend to be a candidate for a playoff roster spot.

As Montoyo said, “They’re different cases.”

How does Shoemaker look?

In his first start back after missing a month with a lat strain, Matt Shoemaker pitched well against the Yankees, holding them to one run over three innings of work. He did walk two in the second inning, but was otherwise effective on a night his fastball topped out at 96 m.p.h.

On Saturday, he’ll have the chance to build off that start and strengthen his bid to start Game 3 of the playoffs should there be one. After throwing 54 pitches in his first start back, it’s reasonable to assume Shoemaker could be stretched to 70 against the Orioles this weekend. If all goes well, he could earn himself a playoff rotation spot.

“If we can stretch him out enough, he’ll be in the conversation for sure,” Montoyo said. “You can count on that.”

The alternative to Shoemaker would likely be Robbie Ray, but the Blue Jays might also like the idea of having Ray available in relief earlier in the series, especially if they play Tampa Bay. Against a lineup including left-handed hitters like Brandon Lowe, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Kevin Kiermaier, Joey Wendle and Nate Lowe, Ray has the potential to be a difference maker.

How much can they expect from Kirk?

The Blue Jays promoted Alejandro Kirk because they wanted offence, and he has delivered so far, making consistently hard contact while putting together quality at-bats against big-league pitching. At this rate, Kirk is likely to get at-bats in the wild-card round, but he could cement his case for regular playing time with a strong final weekend.

Of course, Danny Jansen reminded the Blue Jays of his own offensive ability with a four-hit game including two home runs Wednesday, but Kirk could also factor in at designated hitter. For example, if left-hander Blake Snell starts Game 1 for the Rays, the Blue Jays might prefer to have Travis Shaw, a left-handed hitter, on the bench. That would mean Vladimir Guerrero Jr. starts at first and leaves the DH spot open, potentially for Kirk, who has shown the ability to hit high-velocity pitchers like Snell and Tyler Glasnow.

When it comes to determining playing time for their catchers, all kinds of variables are in play -- who do pitchers prefer throwing to? Does the schedule include a day game after a night game? Is Tellez an option at DH? -- but the better Kirk hits down the stretch, the more options he gives the Blue Jays.

Either way, rostering a third catcher such as Caleb Joseph or Reese McGuire would allow Montoyo to use Kirk as a pinch hitter without having to worry. Otherwise, the Blue Jays would be an injury away from losing their DH.

“That’s never easy because if someone gets hurt it becomes a National League game,” Montoyo said.

Who pitches Sunday?

At this point, Tanner Roark lines up as the likely starter for Sunday's season finale -- a game that will likely have no bearing on the standings. With that in mind, the Blue Jays face a decision. Do they save Roark for the playoffs or let him contribute by soaking up some innings for the rest of the staff?

Considering Roark recently expressed frustration with the short leash starters often find themselves on, he might embrace the opportunity to pitch seven or eight innings.

“Just because the computers are saying something different -- I hate it,” he said after a game earlier this month. “I’m old school. They signed me here for a reason, to not go three, four innings and throw only a certain amount of pitches. I throw a lot of pitches. I try to go as deep as I can.”

Soon, Roark may get his chance. The conversation would be different if Roark were pitching better, yet with a 7.01 ERA and 14 home runs allowed in just 43.2 innings, it’s hard to imagine him pitching high-leverage innings in the wild-card round. But by saving the rest of the staff on Sunday, he could still contribute and potentially re-join the active roster for the ALDS should the Blue Jays advance.

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