Blue Jays travel to West Coast looking to capitalize on tailwind of momentum

Toronto Blue Jays’ Bo Bichette, left to right, Marcus Semien, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and George Springer celebrate after a win. (Jon Blacker/CP)

TORONTO — You probably don’t even remember that there was a time when the West Coast road trip was a real "thing" for teams in the east.

Or at least seemed that way.

Firing a manager? Do it on the coast and use the time difference to control headlines. Worried about the wheels falling off your division lead? Multiply that by a thousand once the chartered flight cleared the desert. Heck: I’ve worked at two newspapers where one of the biggest issues in taking a hatchet to the travel budge was the fear that you’d "miss out on something" by not going to the coast with the ball club.

This was before the internet and 24-hour sports channels – you know, way the hell back in the late '80s when that trip to Cali was important for the well-being of your beat reporter. The beautiful thing was that once your newspaper went to print – again, before the internet – there was nothing you could do if the whole team went to hell. The team bus could crash. Didn’t matter. You weren’t going to get scooped; you didn’t even have to write it until the morning because it wouldn’t see the light of day until the next day's fish-wrap was published.

Sunset Strip? Frolic Room? Viper Club? Here we come, straight through to breakfast followed by a trip to the beach and then a snooze. God, I loved West Coast trips.

Now, I’m not writing this to scare anybody ahead of Tuesday’s first game of the Blue Jays' West Coast trip. Far from it.

I mean, stuff can change pretty quickly but the manner in which the Blue Jays won three of four games against the Boston Red Sox – to recap: a 12-4 win in which they had a nine-run fifth inning to come back from a 2-0 deficit with Nathan Eovaldi on the mound; a 1-0 walk-off win against Matt Barnes after being held to one hit in the first game of a double-header; and Sunday’s 9-8 comeback with five runs in the seventh and eighth innings. George Springer’s three-run home run, again off Barnes, felt like some kind of moment we’ll be re-visiting in the fall.

I don’t know if I’ve been around a team with as much of a tailwind as this one.

Making me feel even better was this snippet of information from’s Mike Petriello, a frequent contributor to Blue Jays Central: since July 1, Blue Jays relievers have had the fewest high-leverage plate appearances in the majors, which is nice when it’s the shakiest part of your team. Who knew when general manager Ross Atkins was talking about run prevention that he meant bullpen appearance prevention?

As for Springer? I don’t know if the Dog Days of August is a thing anymore – yeah, that’s kind of an old newspaper narrative, too – but it sure seemed to me this weekend as if Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and Bo Bichette needed a little respite. Bichette was beaten up in the doubleheader; appearing to hurt his wrist diving for a grounder and fouling pitches off each shin. Vladdy had already been given a day off by manager Charlie Montoyo after playing every game since the pandemic began, but there was still a raggedness to some of his at-bats.

This isn’t a 60-game sprint like it was in 2020; this is 162 games, with all the extra travel and fouled-off pitches and pressure points. Enter Springer, American League Player of the Week for the past two weeks at precisely the time his team needed him.

Look, there is stuff we can’t worry about and can’t foresee. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox provided evidence this weekend with players such as Anthony Rizzo, Gary Sanchez and J.D. Martinez missing time on the COVID-19 injured list. Martinez missed both games of the doubleheader before being activated for Sunday’s game. Unlike the Red Sox, the Yankees – and, in the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers – have had players miss significant chunks of time due to COVID-19 issues.

Mercifully or, at least, luckily, the Blue Jays have as far as we know had just one player go on the COVID-19 IL for 10 days: Teoscar Hernandez, in mid-April. They had two players, Ryan Borucki and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., go on the COVID-19 IL for a couple of days with vaccination side effects.

Some guys are out for 10 days. Some for one. Some for two. So as community service or thereabouts, I reached out to the commissioner’s office. Vice-president of Communications Michael Teevan walked me through it.

Generally, players are out for at least 10 days after testing positive,” Teevan said in an e-mail. “We’ve had a few cases where fully vaccinated and asymptomatic players who tested positive have been cleared by the Joint Committee to come back sooner than 10 days, based on negative tests, but that’s been unusual.

“Vaccinated players don’t miss time from having to quarantine as a close contact. Unvaccinated players do miss time – seven days – from having been a close contact.

“The COVID IL is not reserved for players who test positive. The COVID IL can be used while contact tracing is happening or for players who are being evaluated while symptomatic. So if a player tells a trainer that he has symptoms, the club can put him on the COVID IL until they have clarity on his status.”

And there you go. Clip and save, as we used to say.

Most of us realize the idea behind any vaccine is that while it doesn’t prevent you from contacting a virus or passing it on, it does mitigate the effects of the illness. Promised through collective bargaining is that teams whose on-field personnel have a vaccination rate of 85 per cent or more can enjoy relaxed protocols in the clubhouse, dugout and elsewhere. That’s one carrot that applies to the team as a whole.

Individually, the carrot for players who need to be coaxed by something more than simply keeping themselves and others safe, is that vaccinated players have more avenues off the IL than non-vaxxed players.

Translation: teams with fewer vaccinated players have and likely will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Either way, the virus gonna virus and as one industry source told me this weekend the susceptibility to breakthrough COVID of players who have had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is something they’re keeping an eye on. Not having J.D. Martinez for two games in August is one thing; Not having him for the final two games of the regular season? Or Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series? Quite another.

So there is a lot to play for in these next seven weeks – a lot for everybody. Stuff we know; stuff we don’t know. Since baseball players have had easier access to vaccinations than the rest of us – they were bringing it to them in March, for god’s sake – it would stand to reason that those players who aren’t yet vaccinated won’t be vaccinated.

If COVID cases grow, the guess here is we’ll see discussion about resurrecting a post-season bubble, which nobody wants, especially the Blue Jays, who’ve quickly acclimated themselves to home with a growing sense that maybe/possibly something special is cooking. God-speed, fellas. May that remain a tailwind and not a headwind.

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 5-7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan

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