TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are almost there now, on the verge of a fifth post-season berth in nine years, left to wait for Saturday afternoon to lock it down after a night of handling business with no out-of-town help, their celebration on hold until the time comes.
“It’s definitely more fun if it’s like right after the game and you can run in there because in the last couple innings, you get a feel for how the game’s going to end up, and if you have a lead, there’s nothing better than the excitement of everybody knowing that we’re about to go pop bottles, you know?” said ace Kevin Gausman. “But it doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as it happens. You’re always going to be happy.”
Well, the Blue Jays (89-71) are in position to do just that after an 11-4 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night left them in need of one loss by the Seattle Mariners (87-73) or a victory in their final two games. They talked about hanging out to see what happens with their expansion cousins, who ended up whipping the visiting Texas Rangers 8-0, but Gausman said the players didn’t want to risk “sitting around for no reason with a day game” on Saturday.
Good call, as it turned out.
“You want to do it here with everybody and with these West Coast games ending at 12, 12:30 at night, everyone’s got to get back to their families and tuck the kids in, can’t really wait around here,” added Kevin Kiermaier, who had two hits and a sacrifice fly that capped a three-run third. “Ideally you would want to show up and be like, hey, we win today, we’re popping bottles, we’re celebrating. But nothing has come easy for us all year. So this is kind of fitting in a way.”
Very much so, as the Blue Jays have had to grind so often to get to this point.
Their outburst at the plate Friday, before a raucous Rogers Centre crowd of 42,394, made for an atypically one-sided night.
Alejandro Kirk opened the scoring with a solo shot in the second, expanded the lead with a two-run single in the third ahead of Kiermaier’s sac fly before Brandon Belt’s solo shot and Cavan Biggio’s Little League two-run homer – his base hit to centre slipped under Manuel Margot’s glove and rolled to the wall – in the fourth and Matt Chapman’s solo shot in the fifth made it 8-0.
“It feels great when everybody is hitting,” Kirk said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Hopefully we can carry it on for the next few days.”
A two-run homer by Yandy Diaz and two-run single by Junior Caminero during a sixth inning that Yusei Kikuchi, pushed up a day to better set him up for potential post-season usage, started but didn’t finish, created a hint of tension, but not really.
Biggio’s two-run double in the bottom half and an RBI double by Bo Bichette in the seventh, his fourth hit of the game, pushed the lead back up to 11-4 and the good times kept rolling.
“Really encouraged with the offence,” said manager John Schneider. “It’s timely hitting and home runs. Everyone really swung the bat well, so it was kind of a complete win.”
While nothing was locked down for the Blue Jays, both they and the Rays (97-63) clearly had an eye towards the post-season. Tampa manager Kevin Cash only let starter Adam Civale go through the lineup once before heading to the bullpen to get some work in and reliever-ing his way through the rest of the night, while slowly pulling out starters as the game went on.
Blue Jays manager John Schneider, meanwhile, moved Kikuchi up in place of Hyun Jin Ryu while riding with his new lineup featuring Belt in the two-hole and Bichette batting fourth.
Kikuchi also patched a tell he had on his breaking ball during the first inning of his start last weekend against the Rays, when he gave up three runs in an eventual 9-5 win, and allowed only two hits and two walks through five innings before giving up three in the sixth. Cleaning that up is all the more important if the teams end up meeting in the wild-card round next week.
“We looked at video and it’s pretty clear what I was doing in that first inning,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “We made an adjustment and I think went well.”
All the while, though, the anticipation of securing the playoff berth they’ve worked so hard for hung in the background.
“However you do it is the best way to do it to give yourself a chance in the post-season,” Schneider said of the unusual clinch scenario. “We’ll adjust if we have to. But hopefully we can get that done.”
“It’s like a double-header,” quipped Schneider. “Pay attention to what’s going on, you’ve still got to focus on (Saturday) and hopefully things get done tonight. If not, you’ve got a game to win.”
Whit Merrifield compared the gap in time “to waiting for a big party with your boys.”
“We knew we had a resilient team, a team that can win games in a lot of different ways. I think we all would have liked to have had a better offensive year, collectively and individually, but we didn’t. The thing about this team is we’ve got great arms and great defence and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in, because we didn’t need to rely just on the bats to get us to the post-season,” he added. “Once you get into the post-season all that (stuff) gets thrown out the window, none of that matters anymore. It’s a clean slate. You go and play, stats don’t matter, it’s all about who performs in the fall. That’s really what you strive to get to. We had a deep enough and well-rounded enough team to get to where everyone wants to get to.”
Whether this group produces a different outcome than last year’s team in October is to be determined.
“I thought we had everything we needed last year,” said Bichette. “I think we have everything we need this year. I mean, maybe experience, bringing in more guys with experience, maybe it’s just how it lines up this year. But we compete really well. We play really hard. There’s definitely not going to be a stone unturned in the post-season in terms of effort and attention to detail. I think we have everything we need and we will see if we can get it done.”