Blue Jays will face Twins in wild-card round: ‘Now we’ve got to put it together’

The Tampa Bay Rays got hot early, shelling Blue Jays starter Wes Pearson for nine runs in four innings including a seven-run second inning as they took down Toronto 12-8 in the season finale.

TORONTO — Win-or-loss in Game 162 wouldn’t have made a difference for the Toronto Blue Jays, as it turned out, after a Houston Astros victory and a Texas Rangers defeat locked them into wild-card three and a date with the Minnesota Twins.

Kevin Gausman versus Pablo Lopez in Game 1 on Tuesday at Target Field. (4:38 p.m. ET/ 1:38 p.m. PT on Sportsnet and Sportsnet+.)

Let the fun begin.

“It’s very unique to get to the post-season,” Gausman said before a just-get-through-it, 12-8 loss Sunday to the Tampa Bay Rays capped an 89-73 season for his Blue Jays. “You have to be a very good team to advance. We’ve talked from Day 1 about the talent in this room. Now we’ve got to put it together in the most important games of the year.”

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A high-stakes, severe-pressure run through the final two-and-a-half weeks after a four-game sweep Sept 11-14 by the Rangers at Rogers Centre should have the Blue Jays as prepared as they can be for the grind ahead.

But first, they partied, manager John Schneider taking the centre of the clubhouse to say, “crazy year, great job everybody. Ups and downs. We are right where we should be. Let’s make a deep (expletive) run at this. Congratulations to you all. Let’s (expletive) go,” before bottles were popped amid a mix of euphoria, relief and a release of the stress that accumulates in the grind.

“It’s a long season. There are a lot of moving parts to it – wins, losses, personalities, stress, all that stuff,” Schneider said afterwards. “To be able to do this, it makes it all worth it. I keep my hair really short to hide the grey a little bit. But this is why you do it, to have moments like this.”

“It’s a time to have fun and not worry about anything, we’re just trying to live in the moment, enjoy this and move on,” said shortstop Bo Bichette, a driving force for the club all year long. “It’s been up and down, but you can’t expect anything else from a baseball season, to be honest. That should be what we expect every year. We’ve been able to overcome it, which I think is a special thing.”

Their season has regularly alternated between inspiring and infuriating.

During series in which they swept major-league-leading Atlanta and the wild-card Arizona Diamondbacks, took three of four from the Astros (who pulled out an unlikely AL West crown on the final day of the season) and claimed two of three from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Blue Jays looked top class.

Juxtaposing those gains were an 0-7 start against the Boston Red Sox (although they recovered to win the final six meetings), a 3-10 finish against the Baltimore Orioles, 6-7 marks against both the Rays and New York Yankees and of course that 1-6 run against the Rangers.

The September sweep, when Texas outscored them 35-9, represented a real tipping point.

“After that big Texas series loss, it could have went a couple of ways and we chose to fight, keep going, keep grinding it out and now we’ve got a crack at it. I’m just proud of everyone really,” said closer Jordan Romano. “George (Springer) came around to everyone, every single guy that was in here, telling him not to give up, to keep going. That meant a lot coming from him. I think the guys we got, the character of them, that definitely helped us keep the course.”

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A sweep of the Red Sox immediately afterwards restored control of their own fate to the Blue Jays and they didn’t give it up.

“I just knew it wasn’t the end of the world,” Springer said of the Rangers series. “For a lot of other people, a lot of outside sources, it might have seemed like it was the end of the world, but I knew that it’s not. There was a lot of baseball to be played. I’ve been there before. I’ve been on teams that have gotten swept at the same time (of the season) and still made a deep run. So for me, it was just letting everybody know, hey, it’s OK, it’s really not the end of the world. We responded well and now here we are.”

Befitting a season that’s so often confounded, the Blue Jays dropped a 7-5 decision in 10 innings on Saturday only to clinch when the Rangers beat the Seattle Mariners later that night, Schneider and several coaches watching together in the clubhouse, players largely off on their own.

Gausman spent the night hanging out with his kids virtually and was doing his visualization exercises in preparation for a potential Sunday start when his wife phoned to tell him the Rangers won. Romano watched at home, taking his dog out for a walk. Springer kept tabs on things while packing. A collective celebration came via group text, when Romano credited Matt Chapman with “firing up the boys.”

“It was interesting,” said Romano. “I’ve never really rooted in the last five years for a team other than the Blue Jays. But it was good. It was a low-stress game watching it, they took the lead early. It was like for one day in the last six months, I can get a good night of sleep, no stress. All the boys were texting, we were super happy. It was a good night.”

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Especially good because it meant saving Gausman, resting several regulars and optimizing for the next season.

Once the Rangers won, Gausman dialled it down Saturday night and on Sunday he threw a light side, just to keep himself fresh for Tuesday.

“I’ve actually started the last game of the season four times in my career and one of them actually meant something and that was 2016 (with the Orioles),” he said. “We had to win to come here and play the Blue Jays in the wild card. Going into that start is definitely something that I’ll never forget. Just the intensity of knowing that I can push the button that sends us to the post-season and I ended up pitching really well that game, so that was super cool. In my mind (Saturday), I’m like it wouldn’t be the worst case to punch our ticket. But it’s obviously nicer to give our guys a break.”

The AL Central champion Twins make for an intriguing opponent, with the teams splitting six regular-season contests.

At least one of them is guaranteed to end a long run without any post-season runs, the Blue Jays dating back to 2016, the Twins going all the way back to 2004. Another intriguing subplot is the potential of Jose Berrios facing his former team in either Game 2 or a potential Game 3, depending how Schneider lines up the rotation behind Gausman.

“It’s going to be a fun one but also a tough one,” said Berrios. “They’ve played pretty well so far but Minnesota hasn’t won any games in the post-season, I know they want to win that first game. Us, I’ve never won any games in the post-season (in four previous trips) either. I know this group didn’t win any in 2020 and last year, so it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a competitive series.”

This Blue Jays core went 0-2 against the Tampa Bay Rays three years ago and, in heartbreaking fashion, versus the Seattle Mariners a year ago.

As a result, Bichette said “there are some things we’ve got to overcome,” adding that “when the post-season starts, the post-season starts. It’s a whole different animal. … We haven’t done well so far in our first couple of trips. We need to show up ready to play.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. believes a key difference between the current group and the one from a year ago is that “we’re really hungry and we really want to go far in the playoffs.”

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Asked if that was tied to blowing an 8-1 lead in Game 2 against the Mariners last year, he replied, “not just that one. I still got on my mind 2020 against Tampa (too).”

And now, their wild journey continues.

“I just think this is who we are, this is what we’ve been,” said Springer. “We’ve just been a grinding team. We pitch, we play defence well and we hit. Obviously our defence and our staff has been great all year. The offence has been better than everybody thinks it has been. That’s why we’re in this position, because you still have to score runs to win. As a team, we’ve played a lot of close games, but we also play in a really, really tough division. So there’s a lot to hang your hat on, too.”

Added Whit Merrifield: “The well-roundedness of our team is what got us to this point. Frankly, I mean, it’d have been nice to score eight runs a game. But we didn’t do that. Our defence, our pitching, our bullpen helped carry us through large stretches, our offence picked us up in parts of the year. I think we got everything that we need to go off this post-season. It’s just a matter of whether or not we can. But we definitely have the talent and ability and the mentality that will allow us to do it.”

The chance to prove it begins Tuesday.

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