TORONTO — Starting Tuesday, the 2023 Blue Jays have an opportunity to be something different.
Against the Twins in the wild-card series this week, they can distinguish themselves from the previous iterations of this team that went winless in the playoffs (2020, 2022) or failed to reach the post-season altogether (2021).
But set aside what happened years ago, the Blue Jays also get a shot to distance themselves from a 2023 regular season that was more of a means to an end than a joyful romp. After a summer that players themselves described as frustrating, they can flip the tone of this season in Minneapolis this week. Not every team gets that chance.
“I mean, baseball is hard, right?” manager John Schneider said after his team clinched. “This division is hard. I think getting here probably takes a lot of weight off of the players’ shoulders. Looking back at spring training, there were very high expectations. People can say we either met them or fell short of them. But the fact that we are in, the guys (are) really looking forward to it.”
Somehow this team underwhelmed for most of the year, never seriously competing for the division title with their division rivals in Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Making matters worse, the Blue Jays were especially mediocre in big moments in Toronto, where they had trouble scoring all year (they ranked 23rd out of 30 teams in runs scored at home).
The low-point of their season came at Rogers Centre, when they lost four straight to the Rangers in September. And even on Saturday when they had a chance at a walk-off clincher on the season’s final weekend, they ended up losing in extras and clinching rather anticlimactically via a Mariners loss later that night.
Typically, the best seasons are full of magic moments, and this year just hasn’t offered all that many of them — at least so far. Maybe that was a product of the high expectations from within and outside of the organization. After all, it’s harder to emerge as a pleasant surprise when you start the season with established players, a franchise record payroll and hopes for a division title.
(It’s not impossible to meet or exceed high expectations, though, as Atlanta and the Dodgers can attest).
Whatever the case, this Blue Jays season was often a trying one. But now, none of that matters if they win. Today, they’re a good team with an elite pitching staff that’ll be well-rested by Tuesday. Outside of a first-round bye, it’s hard to ask for more. These Blue Jays could absolutely win a playoff series. All that matters is what happens next.
“Just leave no tables unturned,” said shortstop Bo Bichette. “Give everything we got. We’ve given ourselves a chance to win the whole thing. And that’s all you can hope for as a team, so we’re definitely excited for the opportunity.”
All season long, the Blue Jays have prioritized winning series. Now, that takes on a different meaning. Win their next three, and they’re in the World Series. Win four more and they’ll be the last team standing.
“The confidence is so high in the clubhouse amongst the (players) and the staff,” Schneider said. “We just needed to get in. Getting there was hard. So, going forward, this team is built for the playoffs between pitching and defence and offence … we feel confident.”
After six challenging months, the opportunity for redemption is there. As Schneider says, this team has the pitching and defence to win in October, as long as they get some well-timed home runs. Win a series or two, and the narrative around this team changes for the better and some of the season’s pain would fade.
There’s even a chance to erase some of the sting from last year’s loss to the Mariners.
“Not just that one,” Vladimir Guerrero Jr. clarified. “I’ve still got 2020 against Tampa on my mind, (too).”
But as long as we’re talking about opportunity, we should also note that this group only has so many chances together. After this season, Kevin Kiermaier, Whit Merrifield, Brandon Belt, Matt Chapman, Hyun Jin Ryu and Jordan Hicks all hit free agency. That’s a lot of talent nearing the end of their deals.
After next year, Yusei Kikuchi and Danny Jansen are slated to hit the open market. And after 2025, it’s Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who would become free agents. Win, lose or draw, significant turnover is coming.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. That’s a conversation for this off-season, at the earliest. The point for the time being is this: the Blue Jays may have an opportunity to rewrite a frustrating 2023 season in the coming weeks, but these chances aren’t endless. All the more reason to stay present this October and make the most of this one.
“Last year was cut short,” said Merrifield after Sunday’s win, cigar in hand. “This year I hope we can play for a lot longer. I’m thrilled for the moment.”
“If we’re going to win,” added Bichette, “it’s going to be a long grind and it’s going to be difficult at times, you know? So I’m just excited for that.”