If you’re looking for a microcosm of the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays — beating up on clubs beneath .500 while competing just doggedly enough to drop repeated heart-breakers to teams above; experiencing league-worst results in one-run games; holding a middling win-loss record blatantly belying a substantially positive run differential; demonstrating unquestionable resilience in bouncing back from gut-punch defeats; featuring decent-but-not-dominant starting pitching; suffering persistent bullpen implosions; boasting one of MLB’s most potent offences that can put up a touchdown in an inning yet has inexplicably failed to produce in late-and-close situations — the club’s season series against the Boston Red Sox is a good place to start.
Entering Wednesday’s doubleheader at Fenway Park, the Blue Jays were 4-8 against the AL East leaders despite outscoring sthem 69-61. Lop off the statistical noisiness of an 18-4 Blue Jays blowout plus a 13-4 Red Sox blowout and — tah-dah! — Toronto is 3-7 yet still outscoring Boston 47-44.
The Blue Jays had lost to the Red Sox by one run four times, having held an eighth-inning lead in three of those games. The Red Sox had walked the Blue Jays off twice. The Blue Jays had even lost one in which they were given a 94.7 per cent win expectancy midway through the eighth inning.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays had held the Red Sox to only seven runs over their first three meetings, and eight across three successive games later in the season. The Blue Jays were batting .296/.357/.524 against Red Sox pitching, considerably better than the .262/.319/.519 line Boston’s hitters put up in those games. Toronto had put up 40 walks vs. 100 strikeouts; the Red Sox were worse off in both categories with 31 vs. 110. The Blue Jays had played the Red Sox tough over a dozen games. And they’d lost twice as often as they’d won.
It’s just been that kind of season. The Blue Jays have been a top-five team at scoring runs and a top-10 team at preventing them. They roster MLB’s best hitter and four other regulars with a wRC+ above 120. The club’s two leaders in innings pitched — Robbie Ray and Hyun Jin Ryu — each have an ERA+ above 130. And yet, this team’s high-water mark is six games north of .500. Meanwhile, Toronto’s playoff odds have exceeded 50 per cent on only three days all season. The club’s definitely in the wild card race. But it’s never truly threatened to lead it.
Whether or not you believe there is regression to come over the next two months, in which this team’s results dramatically improve and begin to fall more in line with its process, will inform the odds you give it of making a run and qualifying for the postseason. Similar calculus has been performed incessantly within Toronto’s front office over the last several weeks, as its explored the trade market and weighed options for improvement between now and Friday’s deadline.
As pieces continue to come off the board — a rather substantial one landing within the division Wednesday night as the New York Yankees swung a deal with the Texas Rangers to bring Joey Gallo’s three-true-outcomes bat to a ballpark practically designed with his left-handed approach in mind — it remains to be seen just how aggressively the Blue Jays will pursue upgrades. Maybe there’s a belief that natural improvement from within is on the way and only measured, low-cost roster amendments are needed. We’ll see. The only thing that’s never been in question is how the guys in uniform feel.
“The Toronto Blue Jays is a really good team. We can hit, we can pitch. And I feel like everything's starting to come together” Ray said, as his club split Wednesday’s doubleheader with the Red Sox. “I think the biggest thing is just winning the at-bat, winning the pitch, whatever it is — the small victories that we get. And those small victories add up to games won. I think that's one thing we're trying to do — focus on what we can control. And that's the product on the field.”
Ray brought his lunch pail to the afternoon session of Wednesday’s doubleheader, giving the Blue Jays six innings of one-run ball, walking three and striking out eight. A little scattershot at times and a little shy with his secondaries at others, Ray had to work out of multiple jams, including a bases-loaded, none-out predicament in the second inning. But he built as the game wore on, finding a way to make his slider more competitive, locate a few changeups, and get the most out of a 108-pitch, pound-the-rock day.
“After that second inning, getting out with no runs, there was a huge momentum boost. Not just for the team — but for me, as well,” Ray said. “It was a moment for me to just say, ‘All right, this is the day it's going to be. I'm going to have to grind this out.’”
And grind Ray did, holding the Red Sox to 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and stranding seven baserunners, coming up time and again with a big, gutsy pitch when he needed it most. Home runs from Randal Grichuk and George Springer provided all the runs Toronto needed, while Jordan Romano took over in the seventh for only his second save opportunity of the month looking like he had something to prove, hitting 100-m.p.h. repeatedly as he retired the side in order.
But as any Blue Jays fan can tell you, steps forward this season are often closely followed by steps back. That came in the form of a rough outing for Steven Matz during the doubleheader’s nightcap, as the left-hander coughed up four runs on nine hits over 3.1 innings. With the velocity on his sinker, changeup and curveball all down a tick from their season averages, Matz generated only five whiffs with 71 pitches and left several breaking balls elevated over the plate.
One of them, left up to Jarren Duran in the fourth, was nearly turned into an inside-the-park homer, as the Red Sox flier rounded the bases on what was officially scored a triple and an error on Springer. Matz’s night ended two batters — and two more hits — later.
"I felt like I threw some decent pitches and they just fought them off until they got the pitch they wanted and made me pay,” Matz said. “They were just on everything I was throwing. I looked back — the good pitches I was making, they were fighting them off, fouling them off, and forcing me to put something where they want it.
“That's the battle. When you're out there, you're seeing them fight them off, you're kind of playing chess with them out there. It was a battle for me today. Obviously, I wasn't able to execute on the fly what I wanted to do and get those guys out. So, it's frustrating.”
Toronto’s offence, meanwhile, couldn’t get anything going against Red Sox starter Tanner Houck, who was electric and overwhelming, filling the zone with 95-m.p.h. fastballs and frisbee sliders. And even though Houck was lifted after only 75 pitches, Toronto’s lineup still failed to threaten against a Red Sox bullpen that has been one of the biggest separators between two teams that have played some very competitive baseball this season, results be damned.
But it’s the results that matter in the end. And, lo and behold, after a day that saw each team come away with a 4-1 victory, the Blue Jays are now 5-9 against the Red Sox this season, while outscoring them 74-66.
“I think we've played a lot of good games. Even looking back to some of our games earlier in the season, we've played them tough,” Matz said. “Unfortunately, their record is a little better against us. But I think we're right there. I really do.”
Yet despite how tough the Blue Jays have played the Red Sox, and despite a day with some encouraging signs to be found in a doubleheader split, an unfortunate reality remains: the mere fact the Blue Jays have withstood so much misfortune throughout this bad vibes season does not guarantee they’re destined for a charmed run of sustained success over the next two months, one in which all that karma comes back around and the club rides a magic carpet of good luck and regressing results into the playoffs.
Sure, given a lengthy enough sample, Toronto’s unlikely record ought to normalize and the team’s tendency to score more runs than it allows should produce wins in excess of losses. But there are only 64 games remaining in the season. The runway to land this plane isn’t long. It’s entirely possible the Blue Jays don’t have enough of a window with which to play themselves into the better results their outcome-independent performance suggests they’re due.
But it isn’t a small window, either. It’s longer than the entirety of the 2020 season. For a team that lost 95 times two years ago to even be in the position it is today — two games above .500 and in the thick of a wild card race — is an incredibly quick turnaround. But these Blue Jays could clearly be so much more. In a way, they already are. Their record just doesn’t indicate it. And over the next couple months we’ll find out if it ever will.
“You definitely understand that there is going to be those ups and downs and there's still a lot of baseball to be played. You know, last year we were done by this time. I mean, the season was over,” Ray said. “So, it's a little bit different for guys to understand that 162-game grind because we've got a lot of young players. But they're doing really good at handling those failures and keeping the ebb and flow of those situations at a minimum. Not getting too high, not getting too low. Understanding that it is a long season. And that we still have a lot of meaningful baseball to play.