Blue Jays scratching surface with playoff berth in ‘incomparable’ year

TORONTO – No matter what happens from here on out, this will always be an incomparable season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Expanded playoffs or not, clinching the eighth post-season berth in franchise history is a watershed moment, capping a young group’s transition from club-on-the-rise to club-that-has-arrived, completed at the unlikely refuge of Sahlen Field in Buffalo, without playing a single game at their Rogers Centre home.

At one point in these pandemic days of disarray, barnstorming the entire 60-game schedule was a real possibility for the Blue Jays. Instead, after free agent add Hyun Jin Ryu silenced the New York Yankees over seven dominant innings in a 4-1 victory Thursday, they celebrated at the very same triple-A field many of their young stars passed through en route to all this, in stands empty save for the cardboard cutouts of some of their most loyal fans.

This is fun at the best times. Amid the havoc unleashed by COVID-19’s worldwide rampage, any bit of joy in the fight for normalcy is worth savouring all the more. That’s why bigger-picture discussions about how applicable what the Blue Jays have done this year is over a regular 162-game schedule can wait until all is said and done.

“We pictured bringing a winning attitude and mindset to Toronto and to the big-league level and what’s going to make it special is doing it consistently and doing this for years to come,” Cavan Biggio said. “In my mind, this is just the start of it. We’re going to enjoy this and have some fun with it.”

While the Blue Jays (30-27) could still catch the Yankees (32-25) for second in the AL East or overtake Cleveland (33-24) for seventh (on the third tiebreaker), they most likely will finish eighth and face the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays starting Tuesday at Tropicana Field.

They went 4-6 against their nemesis, the 10 games separated by a mere four runs.

“The pressure’s off, honestly,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of his playoff outlook. ”Just go out and play and have fun and enjoy it. That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to enjoy every minute of it. We know what’s coming and it’s not easy but that’s fine. It hasn’t been easy the whole time.”

There are some loose parallels to the club’s first AL East title in 1985 in this playoff berth in the way it represents a coming of age for a young core. Back then it was George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez and Dave Stieb, while now it’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who opened the scoring with a solo home run, Biggio and Bo Bichette, whose back-to-back doubles in the third doubled the lead, along with Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

While the ’85 team played a normal schedule, won 99 games and had to cope with the misery of Exhibition Stadium, the current squad has to play through protocols that became increasingly restrictive so the game could continue through the pandemic.

When the Blue Jays gathered for summer camp in Toronto, Montoyo told his players that teams who work together and follow health guidelines would thrive while those that whinged would get pulled down. Between the lengthy search for a temporary home, a three-week road trip to start the season that included an entire series postponed by COVID precautions and a bevy of injuries, they very easily could have wilted.

“They never complained,” said Montoyo, who hasn’t seen his family since July. “Not having a home early, playing on the road, tough losses, masks that you’ve got to wear, the hotels – they never complained. They had their minds set on getting to this moment right now. So I’m so proud of this team and they did what I asked them to do. They really did.”

Contributions have come from 21 different players and 28 different pitchers, not including the two innings logged by shortstop Santiago Espinal.

Alejandro Kirk, the 21-year-old catcher being used at DH in a preview of a lefty lineup for the post-season, added to his growing legend with a two-run double in the sixth, adding to a lead that stood up. Pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez nearly erased a 4-1 deficit in the eighth when he came up with the bases loaded and two out and drove a ball that Randal Grichuk reeled in against the wall in centre.

Rafael Dolis closed things out in the ninth and the Blue Jays poured onto the field in jubilation, eschewing the traditional dog pile on the mound for high-fives, T-shirt pull-ons and, eventually, hugs.

“It was obviously a little weird but the protocols and all that didn’t take away from the excitement and the energy we had after the game,” Biggio said. “It was a little bit, I guess you could say, awkward now knowing hey, should we dog pile, should we not, or whatever. After that initial end of the game, started hugging people, the celebration was on and it was something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

Guerrero, who had three hits and a couple of strong defensive plays in one of his most rounded games of the year, strapped on a headband with mounted camera to take in the proceedings, and later jumped in on Montoyo’s Zoom call to let out a big whoop before shouting “we did it.”

On the field, “I wanted to hug all my teammates,” said Guerrero, grinning the whole time.

Added Montoyo: “I was thinking of how great it would have been in Toronto full of people. This victory is for them, too, and for Canada.”

Underpinning the development within the young core has been Ryu, a stability post in a rotation that didn’t throw a pitch in the seventh inning until Thursday. The left-hander was hit around by the Yankees the last time he faced them, but this time relied mostly on his slider and changeup as he mixed five pitches to keep them off-balance.

“It was incredibly important to have a good outing today because starting last year and also this year, the Yankees just had my number,” Ryu said through interpreter Byran Lee. “Going into the game I knew that and throughout the game, I was well aware of it and to come out on top of it with this kind of performance was definitely huge on my end.”

Ryu is lined up to pitch the playoff opener, with Taijuan Walker and, if necessary, Matt Shoemaker, in all likelihood, to follow him.

“It’s incredibly valuable when you have an ace like that you can run out in the first game of a series,” said swingman Ross Stripling, his teammate with the Dodgers last year and now, “and just know he’s going to work his tail off for 100 pitches, keep guys off balance and give us a good chance to win Game 1, which in a three-game series is a huge deal."

The Blue Jays still have three regular-season games to go against the visiting Baltimore Orioles. Nate Pearson, just activated from the injured list, will need an outing and the status of Jordan Romano, slated to throw a bullpen on Friday, will be closely watched. Rowdy Tellez will continue working back from his knee injury but it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready in time for Tuesday.

Either way, Sunday they’ll be leaving Sahlen Field for the final time this year, not to go home, but to move on.

“We feel like we have such an advantage in Buffalo,” Stripling said. “You can tell the Yankees don’t want to be here. (Masahiro) Tanaka looked like he wanted nothing to do with pitching in Buffalo (Wednesday) night. So I feel like we have a little bit of an advantage and wish we could start a playoff series here. But we’ll be ready wherever we have to go.”

The Blue Jays have secured themselves an open ticket into the post-season. How long it lasts is up to them.

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