TORONTO – Clinch a wild-card berth with a win at home, celebrate with an adoring crowd of 42,097 and then rush into the clubhouse to pop bottles and party deep into the night?
Nah, way too easy and straightforward for these Toronto Blue Jays, who fell 7-5 in 10 innings to the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday afternoon, largely went home to prepare for a potential win-and-in Game 162 only to have their post-season spot booked when the Texas Rangers beat the Seattle Mariners 6-1.
Given the way their oft-befuddling season’s gone, it feels rather apt.
“Yeah, it does. It’s not ideal, but it does,” Brandon Belt said of the odd clinching scenarios just as the Rangers-Mariners game was beginning. “I guess it all doesn’t matter, though, if we get in. It definitely builds character. I know that’s pretty cliche, but it can. It can help you when you get in the playoffs, because it’s going to be a lot of games just this. May lose a couple. But you’ve got to keep fighting to come back.”
If that’s the case, the 89-72 Blue Jays should have enough character banked to carry them through October. They certainly have the tools to make a run and perhaps now that they’re in and everything resets and all that matters is playing for another tomorrow, the Blue Jays will finally hit their stride.
“Everyone always says, ‘No one wants to see us in the playoffs. No one wants to get us,’” said centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier. “You’d like a little bit easier of a path. But at the same time, we’ve made our own bed and we’re in a great spot right now. I have a really good feeling about this team.”
Imperfect as this clinch turned out to be – akin to last year’s clinch when their spot was secured on an off-day – it also brings an end to a high-stress finish that Belt described as, “torture” while allowing them to push ace Kevin Gausman back from Sunday to Game 1 of the wild-card round.
Their opponent isn’t set and there are multiple permutations, but here’s the gist:
- If the Rangers (90-71) win the American League West on Sunday and the Blue Jays finish ahead or tied with the Houston Astros (89-72), Toronto gets the second wild-card and faces the Rays;
- If the Astros and Rangers finish tied at 90 wins, Houston wins the West, and win or lose, the Blue Jays get the third wild-card spot, facing the Minnesota Twins.
However it plays out, they can thank the Rangers, of all teams, for averting a win-and-in finale.
“I mean, why wouldn’t it happen this way?” Chapman, also speaking before the final in Seattle, said of the unusual situation. “It’s kind of been the way our season has gone this year, a lot of ups and downs … It’s pretty crazy, last day of the season, pretty much win or go home. That’s what you’re here for. If that happens, I’ll be ready, I’ll be excited, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. But I’d rather it get locked up before.”
Chapman and the Blue Jays got their wish but even if they hadn’t, one point of comfort manager John Schneider leaned on is that, unlike 2021, when they missed the playoffs by one game on the last day of the season, his team didn’t need the help of others.
“The biggest thing is that we control everything, right?” he said after the loss. “It’s hectic and it’s stressful and all that kind of stuff. But this is why we play 162. … Yes it’s up and down and back and forth, all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, we control our own fate. That part of it feels really good.”
Schneider also quipped that the path of most resistance “is kind of how we do it,” and the journey to this point has been a trying one, with multiple tests along the way.
There was the 2-9 stretch against the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Rays in mid-May. Running with a four-man rotation after the June demotion of Alek Manoah. A jarring sweep by the Boston Red Sox in early July, with a series loss in Seattle that featured a pair of late-game collapses later in the month. Consecutive series losses to the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Guardians in August, the latter of which included injuries to Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman. The four-game sweep against the Texas Rangers in mid-September that could have been a dagger in their season. The consecutive shutout losses to the Yankees to begin this week. Saturday, in its own way.
Time and again, the Blue Jays found an answer.
“It’s just been a season with a lot of ups and downs,” said Kiermaier. “Definitely weren’t as consistent as we planned or as dominant at certain times like we kind of all thought we were going to be. But at the end of the day, though, throughout the season, I’ve said it time and time again, we’ve always stuck with each other, always sitting here having conversations or team meetings, stuff that we’re saying on the bus rides, ‘Hey, just see it through, fellas, just stay the course, we’re too good, we have so much talent.’ We’re a team where we just kind of go on runs. That could be good and sometimes it’s bad. But you want to be as locked in as possible this time of the year … and we know that things started to shape up at the right time. That’s what you want.”
What they didn’t want was the end of Saturday’s game, which forced the carts filled with champagne and beer to be pushed from a storage room across from the clubhouse back into a freezer.
Knotted at 4-4 after Harold Ramirez’s two-run homer in the fifth inning, Taylor Walls eventually broke through in the 10th against Jordan Hicks, who also pitched the ninth after Jordan Romano handled the eighth, with a two-run single. Junior Caminero’s roller brought in another run.
While Bo Bichette ripped an RBI double off Chris Devenski in the bottom half, the Blue Jays could get no closer, leaving them to wait out the night.
Hyun Jin Ryu, making what could be his final appearance for the Blue Jays, could have brought his four seasons in Toronto full circle by winning a clinching game in the last year of his $80-million, four-year contract, just as he did in 2020, during his first year.
But the veteran lefty, who at 36 made a remarkably fast return from Tommy John surgery last summer, gave up an RBI single to Isaac Paredes in the first, an RBI double to Josh Lowe in the third and was fortunate to not take more damage in his three frames, giving up seven hits and lots of loud contact. It wasn’t an outing reflective of the value in the 52 essential innings he provided in place of Manoah this year, or his total contribution across the four years.
“You look at his signing and it was one of the first of many that really turned the tide here a little bit,” said Schneider. “He was one of the best pitchers in a shortened season in 2020. But just having a pitcher of his calibre here kind of set the tone for what we were doing after that, too. … His impact has been huge. A veteran guy that has been around and he’s helped other pitchers, he’s helped our catchers and just a really, really steady presence.”
Daulton Varsho began undoing a 2-0 deficit in the third with a solo shot and then put the Blue Jays ahead in the fourth with a two-run single, right after a Taylor Wells error on a Whit Merrifield loaded the bases. George Springer’s RBI single later in the inning made it 4-2.
But Trevor Richards, the first of six relievers, gave up a two-run homer to new Blue Jays nemesis Harold Ramirez in the fifth and score remained 4-4 until the decisive 10th.
An intriguing subplot developed when Schneider brought in Romano, who blew a save last weekend at Tropicana Field and gave up the winning homer in the ninth against the Yankees in his last two outings, to pitch the eighth, saving Hicks for the ninth.
Schneider insisted the flip was match-up based and not a product of any role changes.
“There’s definitely a heads-up there, there has been a heads-up since we acquired Jordan Hicks and it always worked out where Romano has had the ninth inning,” said Schneider. “But they all know where we are and what we can do in our bullpen. Romano was nasty today. He had really good stuff. So it kind of just depends on where you are and who’s available. But I guess to answer your question, I have no problem throwing Romano in the ninth or the 10th or the 11th.”
Hicks was clean in the ninth but took damage in the 10th after Kiermaier made a brilliant catch to open the top half, chasing down a smash from Jonathan Aranda by the wall and throwing to third to keep ghost-runner Paredes at second.
After an intentional walk to Lowe, pinch-hitter Raimel Tapia also walked, Yandy Diaz, coming off the bench, struck out and Walls dropped in a two-run single. Caminero then beat out his roller.
Bichette’s double was the last gasp and then the Blue Jays waited and the Rangers won and they were in, one game remaining in the first 162, a fresh slate awaiting them in the season beyond.