TORONTO – There’s accomplishment in simply getting to this point not only for the Toronto Blue Jays, who overcame more than most, but for Major League Baseball as a whole. This shortened 60-game season was a welcomed respite from pandemic life, and things nearly fell apart when the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals suffered early COVID-19 outbreaks. As fans poured over results from the field, executives lived and died with results from the labs.
Despite all the challenges and risks, the first finish line arrived Sunday with the regular-season’s end and the Blue Jays are among the 16 teams who get to continue pursuing the second. A 7-5 loss to the Baltimore Orioles capped a 32-28 campaign and locked them into the eighth seed and a first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Had they won, they would have leapfrogged the New York Yankees, 5-0 losers to the Marlins, into the fifth seed as the second-place finisher in the American League East and faced Cleveland.
Instead, it’s a date with their arch-nemesis, one manager Charlie Montoyo said his players are relishing.
“Our team knows that for us to start winning championships, we’ve got to go through Tampa Bay,” said Montoyo, who spent 22 years in the Rays organization before joining the Blue Jays last year. “We played the Yankees well, and now we have to play Tampa Bay well, and that’s why I think they want to go there, because it’s a big challenge for us.”
The matchup is an intriguing one given the ties between Montoyo and the Rays coaching staff, the Blue Jays’ aspirations to emulate the Rays’ efficiency, and a 10-game season series with a cumulative score of 48-44.
The Blue Jays were 4-6 against them overall, 1-4 in the five one-run contests and 2-1 in three two-run affairs. A 12-4 Blue Jays win and a 4-1 Rays victory were the outliers.
“If you’re in right now every team is going to present its challenges,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told Tampa Bay reporters. “We have a fairly good idea of that team, just as they do us. … We’ll have our hands full.”
The gamesmanship is already underway, with Montoyo again declining to reveal how he will line up the rotation. Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola, who began his career in the Blue Jays system and was the big-league hitting coach in 2013, predicted as much, saying “he’s not going to show us any cards.”
“I know they’re going to do some interesting things with pitchers,” Mottola added, “who’s starting, who’s getting length; moving parts.”
Told of Mottola’s comments, Montoyo laughed and said, “So, yeah, Rays, hold on now. You’ve got to wait. Can’t be doing your stuff yet.”
The Blue Jays have muddied the waters since Friday with talk about “keeping our options open” and “how we can maximize and optimize” the pitching — and that will be an important subplot.
That Hyun-Jin Ryu wasn’t their automatic pick for Game 1 after throwing 100 pitches and seven innings for the first time this season in Thursday’s playoff-clinching win over Yankees raised questions about whether something is up. Montoyo insisted his ace is fine, but Matt Shoemaker’s scheduled start Saturday getting cancelled to throw a bullpen with Robbie Ray sure made it look like the pair will tandem up for the opener.
“Nothing,” Montoyo replied when asked what was left to decide. “We just have to talk about the whole roster. I want to show everything at the same time, everybody who’s going to be on our roster and in the rotation.”
Objectively, the first game is very important as since 1995, when the wild-card era began, the team that wins it is 126-49 in the series, regardless of round or length. Teams that go up 2-0, meanwhile, are 88-9 while those who take a 3-0 lead are 17-1.
In a best-of-three, of course, taking the first game forces the opposition to immediately face elimination, so there’s a case to be made for ensuring your best arm gets the ball. But if Ryu feels like he’d benefit from an extra day, well, you’d probably want to set him up for the best.
Offensively, the Blue Jays appear to be set up well.
Gurriel Jr., who left Saturday’s game after fouling a ball off his foot, returned to the lineup for the finale and went 4-for-4 with a homer and two doubles, finishing with a team-leading .308 batting average. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., meanwhile, capped a 12-for-27 week with his ninth homer of the season.
While Tanner Roark allowed four runs, two earned, in four innings to cap a difficult debut season in which he was second on the Blue Jays with 47.2 innings but finished with a 6.99 ERA, and Shun Yamaguchi was roughed up for a three-spot in the decisive fifth, the most important development on the mound related to Jordan Romano’s live batting practice earlier in the day.
The Canadian right-hander threw his all at the outing and as long as he doesn’t come up sore Monday, he should be on the post-season roster. He’s been out since suffering a pulley strain in his right middle finger — an injury similar to the one Aaron Sanchez suffered in 2017 and needed surgery to repair.
While he’s unlikely to be at 100 per cent, if he can give the Blue Jays a key inning or two he could be an important add.
All that should be sorted by Monday, when the teams will work out at Tropicana Field ahead of an engagement filled with familiarity, friendships and rivalry.
“I myself and everybody involved in this organization just has so much appreciation for Charlie, and his family,” said Cash. “You don’t work here as long as he did and not have a big imprint in such a positive way. You talk to the players that played for him, you talk to the guys that know him well, he’s just an unbelievable human and great leader, great manager, all those things.
“We’re excited for him. But we’re going to have to get past that come Tuesday and find a way to put our best foot forward and win games.”
The same goes “not only for me, but also for my players,” said Montoyo. “They really wanted to play Tampa Bay because it was a tough matchup all year in the 10 games. They’re looking forward to that challenge again, too, against one of the best teams in baseball.”
The Blue Jays got the road they wanted. It’s on them to ensure it takes them where they want to go.