TORONTO – This season like no other for the Toronto Blue Jays started back on July 24, when they decided in the morning to play their home games at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field and then beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 at Tropicana Field later that night.
Nine weeks later, they can clinch a post-season berth for the first time since 2016 at the triple-A ballpark that became their place of refuge, with Hyun-Jin Ryu – the centrepiece of an off-season rotation overhaul who started on opening day – getting the ball again Thursday night.
A 14-1 thumping of Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees on Wednesday brought the Blue Jays’ unusual path to the gate of the playoffs, with victories by the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners holding their magic number at one.
At multiple points over the past two-plus months such a scenario seemed beyond unlikely, and not just because they learned a week before opening day that they would not play at their Rogers Centre home due to the pandemic border closure, and then had plans to play in Pittsburgh and Baltimore collapse, forcing them to Buffalo.
The campaign began with a two-week road trip and when a pair of losses Aug. 16 to the Rays left the Blue Jays at 7-11 as Bo Bichette suffered a knee injury, their ambitions could easily have been cooked. Instead, they reeled off a six-game win streak to begin a 19-9 run that propelled them to the cusp, and what looks like a first-round matchup with their nemesis Rays.
“You can make (a situation) as bad as it is, or as good as you want,” said Cavan Biggio, who scored three times, including the game’s first run, and drove in a pair during an eight-run sixth that pushed this one out of reach. “Going into our situation, not being able to play in Toronto and coming to Buffalo, playing on the road for the first couple of weeks, we could have easily looked at it as if, ‘our backs are against the wall, it’s OK if we don’t win this year, it’s kind of a crazy year.’ The way we took it is, ‘we’re here for each of us in the locker room’ and it’s shown over the longevity of this long year with injuries and guys going down, guys stepping in and picking it right up. There’s just a lot of tight-knit guys here on this team and it’s made it a lot of fun.”
And all the more so if they complete the next steps to come.
At 29-27, the Blue Jays can do no worse than finishing in a tie for the eighth and final post-season spot, but that does them nothing as they would lose a tiebreaker to both the Angels, who are 3½ games back, and Mariners, who are four off the pace.
The first tiebreaker is intra-division record and for the Blue Jays to end up in a tie with Seattle, they’d have to lose out, leaving them 19-21 versus the AL East, while the Mariners would need to win out, ending up at 22-18 against the AL West.
The Angels, meanwhile, are already finished in the division at 19-21, so if they finished level, they’d go to the second tiebreaker, which is record in the last 20 divisional games. In that scenario, the Blue Jays would be 8-12 to 12-8.
So, there’s no bottle popping just yet, although Ryu can make all that academic with a good outing in the type of game the Blue Jays envisioned him in when they anted up $80 million over four years to lure over the Korean lefty.
“Everybody’s excited here,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, “and of course we have our ace going.”
Robbie Ray, the lefty added at the trade deadline, allowed only an unearned run in four innings of work against an all-righty lineup that provided “a good test” ahead of a possible bullpen role in the playoffs, a test that Montoyo said he “passed.” If the Blue Jays do end up facing the Rays and their slew of left-handed bats, Ray could enter the game and force them to either go to their bench or surrender platoon advantage.
“I’ve done it before in my career, I did it in the 2017 wild-card game, I came in after the starter,” said Ray. “So I’ve done it in pressure situations. Thankfully, I have that.”
Ray left with a 5-1 lead after allowing the first two batters to reach in the fifth, but A.J. Cole, coming in for mid-inning leverage, walked Aaron Judge to load the bases before striking out Giancarlo Stanton, popping up Luke Voit and getting a weak flyout from Gleyber Torres.
The Blue Jays have pre-determined relievers for such usage each day, a trend sure to continue into the playoffs.
“I’m already thinking about it before the game starts,” said Montoyo. “I know who my leverage guy is going to be early (in the game). It’s been (Thomas) Hatch and today I knew Cole was going to be that guy. By the time Ray went into the third time in the lineup, 90 pitches, Cole was already warming up.”
By that point the Blue Jays had worn out Tanaka, getting the first of two Danny Jansen home runs and a two-out RBI single from Randal Grichuk in the fourth to open up a 5-1 edge. They then blew the doors open in the sixth, as they continued to trade blowout victories with the Yankees. Of their nine meetings so far, only two have been decided by less than five runs.
“Celebrate this win and the lock it back in for (Thursday) is the biggest thing,” said Ray. “A lot of these young guys, they’re great, they’re really good at turning the page and looking at just that day. We’re going to celebrate this win because it was a big win for us, but we’re also going to come out (Thursday) and just focus on what we can do (Thursday).”
Ross Stripling locked down the final four innings, allowing only one hit to earn the save, leaving the Blue Jays on the cusp.
“We’re not done yet, work’s not done, but we’re ready to take it one game at a time,” said Jansen. “It’s been a wild year, to say the least. Just going in there and competing day-in and day-out to put ourselves in this spot, it’s a great feeling, but we still have work to do.”