TORONTO – Well before the first spring training began, the pandemic hit and COVID-19 changed everything, Bo Bichette refused to accept the prevailing better-but-not-yet-ready narrative around the Toronto Blue Jays. The star shortstop told anyone who asked that he and his teammates would defy low expectations and surprise those who took them lightly.
That belief is why he chafed earlier this week when asked, had the Blue Jays been offered the scenario they’re in now – closing in on the eighth and final playoff spot in the American League in the last days of the campaign – how quickly he would have signed up for it.
“Not that fast,” he replied bluntly.
“We’ve played really well, but I think we could have played better,” Bichette continued. “I’m proud of the way we’ve battled this year under a lot of difficult circumstances. But this last week we’re just going to try to get a playoff spot. Like I’ve told you all along, we all expected to be here. So I don’t think we would’ve just run at a chance for the eighth spot.”
At this point, the eighth spot is most likely what’s left for the Blue Jays, as Tuesday night’s 12-1 thumping from the New York Yankees all but officially locked them into third place in the American League East. A realistic run at second in the division would have required a sweep of the current four-game series between the clubs, but instead they’re now four games behind the Yankees with five games to play.
The Blue Jays also fell three games behind Cleveland – a 5-3 winner over the Chicago White Sox – for the second wild-card spot, while their magic number to clinch a post-season berth remained at three pending the Seattle-Houston game.
Locking that up remains their priority in the coming days, but the Blue Jays can also look to optimize themselves for a first-round playoff series, even if “right now we have a pretty good idea, if we make it, who we’re going to take,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “Everybody’s been pitching, so we have a pretty good idea.”
To that end, another date with Gerrit Cole presented a chance to refine their approach against the type of elite pitching they can expect to encounter on the regular in the playoffs.
Montoyo was thrilled with the plans his hitters employed in Monday’s series-opening 11-5 win, saying “the two-strike approach was outstanding. That was good to see, guys getting base hits, not striking out with two strikes. Hopefully, that approach continues.”
It did, to some degree, against the ace right-hander, but he really didn’t give them much to work with, allowing only one run on five hits, one of them a Cavan Biggio solo shot in the fourth, over seven innings. He averaged 97.2 m.p.h. on a four-seam fastball he threw 50 times in 108 pitches, and with a vicious slider and curveball for hitters to worry about, too, it’s not a fun night at the dish.
“We did a nice job getting his pitch count high,” said Montoyo.
More fruitfully, the Yankees did that to the run count against Tanner Roark, bleeding out a pair in the first on a lucky-bounce triple by Aaron Hicks and a wild pitch, adding on another in the fourth before the game unravelled in a four-run fifth.
Roark was pulled after a one-out Aaron Judge RBI single and Thomas Hatch took damage for the fourth consecutive outing, allowing a two-run single to Hicks past a diving Vladimir Guerrero Jr., at first base and another RBI single to Gleyber Torres before escaping the frame.
With Hyun-Jin Ryu, Taijuan Walker and Matt Shoemaker lineup to pitch the first three games of the post-season, Roark’s role in the post-season is uncertain. He’s on turn to pitch in Sunday’s season finale, which would rule him out of the first round, and it’s unclear how he’d fit in the division series, should the Blue Jays get there.
The runway to cement progress he feels he’s made in locating his pitches and driving off the rubber is short.
“Just take it one start at a time, one bullpen at a time, when you’re playing catch, that’s really a big thing,” Roark, who hasn’t thrown five innings since Aug. 30, said of how to build himself up. “Focus on feeling everything you want to feel, because you play catch more than you’re on the mound. Keep building off what I did today and in previous starts and try to keep going.”
His recent troubles are a secondary concern to those of the bullpen, which in many ways carried the Blue Jays to the position they’re in right now.
Hatch, who emerged as a trusted leverage arm, is suddenly hittable, which in the ongoing absence of Jordan Romano, who threw a bullpen Tuesday, is trouble, while once serviceable middle-innings reliever Wilmer Font is no longer fooling anyone.
“The base hit (by Hicks), it’s seeing-eye, it’s a base hit we couldn’t get,” Montoyo said of Hatch. “I still trust the guy. He’s fine to me. Today wasn’t his best, but we catch that groundball it’s a different inning.”
The decision to start Ray on Wednesday pushed Chase Anderson to the bullpen, and he dazzled for two innings, striking out five straight at one point, before coughing up a three-spot in the eighth. If he can be more like the guy in the first two innings, he’s something to consider in short bursts.
“That was his best outing in a while,” said Montoyo. “I thought he was good.”
The Blue Jays will need to sort out what recovering righties Romano, Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather might offer, and the same goes for lefty Anthony Kay, optioned last week for a bit of a breather. Meanwhile, Rafael Dolis was unavailable due to a knee issue suffered in Philadelphia, and third baseman Travis Shaw was scratched with back spasms.
With the closing of the alternate training site in Rochester and the reduction to a 40-man post-season player pool, the Blue Jays now have everyone together for the road that lies ahead. Their place in the standings is all but set, and preparations for the post-season await.