Diving into the Blue Jays' AL wild card scenarios

Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) celebrates his RBI sacrifice fly against the New York Yankees during sixth inning American League MLB baseball action in Toronto on Wednesday, September 28, 2022. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — Thanks to the Boston Red Sox completing a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, we know this much: the Toronto Blue Jays will play a three-game wild card series beginning Friday, October 7.

Who will they be playing against? And where? That remains to be seen. But answers to those questions will come at some point over the next six days — sooner if the Blue Jays can string together some wins, later if they scuffle.

The good news for the Blue Jays is they’re in the driver’s seat.

They wake up Friday as sole occupants of first place in the American League wild card standings, 1.5 games ahead of the second-place Seattle Mariners, and two games up on the Tampa Bay Rays in third. Here’s how those standings look entering the weekend:

As a refresher — the first-place wild card finisher hosts all three games of one wild card series against the second-place finisher. The third-place club travels to Cleveland to be the visitor in all three games of the other set against the AL Central-champion Guardians.

The winner of the series between the top two wild card teams will go on to play the Houston Astros in the divisional round; the winner of the series in Cleveland will get the New York Yankees.

So, if the regular season ended Friday morning, the Blue Jays would host the Mariners, with the winner continuing to Houston, while the Guardians would welcome the Rays, competing to earn a spot in a divisional series beginning in the Bronx.

Of course, there are still games to be played — six each for the Blue Jays and Rays, seven for the Mariners. Toronto’s magic number to clinch the first wild card spot is six with the Mariners and five with the Rays. That means the earliest the Blue Jays could secure home field advantage is Sunday. Three Blue Jays wins combined with at least two losses by the Rays and three losses by the Mariners over that span would do it.

But it’s unlikely to be that easy. If the Blue Jays can’t take care of business against the Red Sox at Rogers Centre this weekend, and the Orioles at Camden Yards next week, the Rays, Mariners, or both could close their respective gaps. Which would be bad news for the Blue Jays, who don’t hold the edge in any tiebreaker scenarios.

At the end of the regular season, any two-team ties will be decided by head-to-head record, while a three-team tie would come down to which club has the best combined winning percentage against the other two teams. And with the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Rays all having finished their season series against one another, we know who holds the hammer in the various scenarios:

So, the Blue Jays need to finish at least one win ahead of both the Rays and Mariners if they’re going to ensure one of next weekend’s wild card series is hosted at Rogers Centre.

That will make for some intense scoreboard watching over the next six days.

The Rays open a three-game set in Houston on Friday before travelling to Boston for three more against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park starting Monday. The Mariners, meanwhile, host the Oakland Athletics this weekend and then welcome the Detroit Tigers for four next week, including a Tuesday doubleheader.

Ultimately, Toronto’s fate is in its hands. But it would take only a couple losses this weekend, and a couple wins by the Rays, Mariners, or both, to change that. All scenarios are still on the table for now. Here’s a look at each of Toronto’s potential outcomes at the end of these next six games.

Blue Jays finish first, host wild card series vs. Rays or Mariners

The Blue Jays can force this scenario without any help from elsewhere across the league by simply winning their final six games. Easier said than done, particularly considering the mental miscues and unforced errors that have sabotaged the club’s efforts of late. But with a playing-out-the-string Red Sox side coming to town this weekend, and a series with the likely-to-be-eliminated-by-then Orioles on tap next week, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

But what if the Blue Jays go 3-3 over that stretch? Then they need three Mariners losses and two by the Rays to clinch home field advantage. What if Toronto goes 2-4? Then the Mariners need to lose at least four of their final seven, while the Rays lose three of their final six. The less the Blue Jays win, the more help they’ll need to ensure a wild card series is played at Rogers Centre.

That’s why, even after clinching a postseason berth Thursday, Toronto can’t take its foot off the gas. We’ve all seen it in postseasons past — 49,000-strong packed to the Rogers Centre rafters, creating the kind of sound that causes Johnny Cueto to drop return throws, Gerrit Cole to balk, and opposition players to meltdown under the pressure of MLB’s most hell-raising atmosphere. That’s what the Blue Jays are playing for over their final six games.

Blue Jays finish second, travel to Seattle for wild card series

Seattle has a game in hand on both the Blue Jays and Rays, a discrepancy that won’t be made up until Tuesday, when the Mariners host a doubleheader against the lowly Tigers.

And if Seattle is within 2.5 games of the Blue Jays Tuesday morning, the possibility of leapfrogging into the first wild card spot will remain. That could lead to some nervous scoreboard watching for Blue Jays fans, as their club plays play the middle game of a series in Baltimore.

Of course, the last couple weeks haven’t only been nervous for Mariners fans — they’ve been maddening. MLB’s schedule makers have presented Seattle with an abundant platter of cupcakes with which to finish their season as the club plays its final 20 games against below-.500 opposition. But the Mariners have refused to consume the pastries.

After a 3-7 road trip against the 70-86 Angels, 56-100 Athletics, and 63-93 Royals, the Mariners returned home this week and were promptly shut out in the opener of a series with the 66-89 Rangers. Seattle finally got back on track with a narrow victory the next night. But it took multiple extra-inning comebacks to edge Texas in an insane, 10-9 finale on Thursday, as the Mariners continued to fumble around with their season above an open flame.

Despite all that, it’s easy to foresee the Mariners putting things back on the rails over its final two series, as they welcome the 100-loss Athletics and 92-loss Tigers to Seattle. For all their blundering, the Mariners are still the best positioned club to overtake the Blue Jays for that first wild card spot by sheer ease of schedule. Which would create a tough scenario for Toronto, as it flew across the continent to contest a series before rowdy Mariners fans watching their team play postseason baseball for the first time in 21 years.

And recent struggles or not, Seattle remains a talent-rich club capable of running out a stacked rotation of Robbie Ray (3.58 ERA), Luis Castillo (3.06), and Logan Gilbert (3.29) in a wild card series. Sensational rookie Julio Rodriguez, who’s posted a five-win season in his first trip through the league, is expected to return from a back injury in time for the playoffs, and will reassume his place atop a lineup that, not unlike Toronto’s, runs deep with hitters performing at an above league average level.

If the Mariners can get out of their own way, they can be as dangerous a postseason team as any.

Blue Jays finish second, travel to Tampa Bay for wild card series

Thanks to a two-game cushion as of Friday morning, Toronto can afford to play one game worse than Tampa Bay over the next six days and still finish with a better record.

But what if the Blue Jays play two games worse than Tampa? What if Toronto goes 3-3 over the next six while the Rays get hot and go 5-1? In that case, Tampa could edge in front of Toronto in the standings thanks to the tiebreaker they hold and potentially force the Blue Jays to travel to Tropicana Field for three games next weekend.

Did you feel that churn in the pit of your stomach? The involuntary dread at the thought of a three-game, winner-take-all series at The Trop? The Blue Jays are 87-135 in franchise history at Tropicana Field — a .392 winning percentage. Over the years, Toronto’s players and coaches, its style of play, the very uniforms it wears, have all changed. But the results have stayed the same.

Now, to be fair, this year’s Rays vintage is the least threatening we’ve seen in some time. Thanks to an unbelievable run of injuries, the club has been forced to reach deep into its renowned depth and look outside the organization for playable veterans such as David Peralta, Christian Bethancourt, and Jose Siri to plug holes around the diamond. With a 102 wRC+, this isn’t an offence a team as good as Toronto ought to fear.

But it’s still a versatile, fundamentally-sound, balanced one that’s allowed manager Kevin Cash to start 152 different batting orders and 146 defensive alignments over 156 games, and match up advantageously against tough, late-inning relievers. That’s really the Rays' secret sauce — metamorphosing their lineup to best exploit the opposition’s weaknesses while putting its own players in the possible position to succeed.

The Rays also still feature the kind of deep, adaptable pitching staff the club’s known for, led by Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs. Meanwhile, Tyler Glasnow just returned from Tommy John surgery flashing the same dominant stuff that gave him ace-like potential prior to his injury and gives Cash another weapon to use in shorter stints either as a starter or out of an already-stacked, versatile bullpen.

All told, the Blue Jays are a better team than the Rays on paper and would be the odds-on favourite to win a three-game series. But when that series is being played at Tropicana Field, all bets are off.

Blue Jays finish third, travel to Cleveland for wild card series

To find themselves in the third wild card spot and hopping over Lake Erie for a series with the Cleveland Guardians, Toronto would need to play two games worse than the Rays over the next six days, and 1.5 worse than the Mariners.

One scenario would see the Blue Jays splitting their final stretch, 3-3, while the Mariners go 5-2 and the Rays go 5-1. Or, if the Blue Jays go cold and lose four of their final six, the Mariners would need only a 4-3 record, and the Rays only 4-2, to knock Toronto down to third.

Ultimately, the Blue Jays would need to scuffle at the worst time while the Mariners and Rays get hot at the best time. But that’s well within the realm of possibility when you’re looking at a two-series stretch of baseball. The Blue Jays have split or lost their last three series, going 4-5 in the process. And one of those wins was a 10th-inning walk-off. Anything can happen.

And yet, while the run of poor play necessary to make this scenario occur would be an unfortunate way for the Blue Jays to enter the postseason, there’s a case to be made it wouldn’t be the club’s worst outcome.

Cleveland’s averaging only 4.3 runs per game this season — fewer than the 89-loss Rangers and 91-loss Colorado Rockies. The Guardians offence has produced a 98 wRC+, the lowest of any postseason-bound club by a mile. Its 123 home runs are the second fewest in baseball to the 92-loss Tigers. Its 33 per cent hard-hit rate and 4.8 per cent barrel rate are dead last.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s second among AL teams in runs per games and first in wRC+, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate. The Blue Jays have five hitters with 20 or more homers — Cleveland has one. And while the Guardians and Blue Jays have near identical records, Cleveland’s gotten there while playing 110 games against teams below .500. Toronto’s played sub-.500 teams only 71 times while out-scoring Cleveland by a half-run per game.

A three-game playoff rotation of Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill supported by a bullpen with a collective 3.04 ERA would certainly by a challenge. But with a lineup regularly featuring some combination of Owen Miller (85 wRC+), Gabriel Arias (61), Myles Straw (63), and one of Austin Hedges (43) or Luke Maile (75) as its bottom three hitters, the Guardians are essentially giving away outs a third of the time they’re at the plate.

if the Blue Jays can muster even four runs per game against Cleveland’s pitching, they can feel pretty good about their ability to contain its anemic offence. Dropping to third in the wild card standings wouldn’t be the best way for Toronto to back into the playoffs. But it might produce the best matchup.

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