‘Dream come true’: New generation of Blue Jays ready for playoff baseball at Rogers Centre

Alex Avila joins Blair and Barker to discuss just how important home-field advantage is for the Toronto Blue Jays and how the fans at the Rogers Centre can impact the game.

BALTIMORE – Bo Bichette grew up a big fan of Troy Tulowitzki and an even bigger fan of home runs so he naturally took an interest in the Toronto Blue Jays, even before they selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft. He closely watched their back-to-back runs to the American League Championship Series and has since rewatched the iconic drives by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, awed by how the cameras shook and players streamed from the dugout in celebration.

Six years later, the opportunity to make memories of his own when the Blue Jays host Game 1 of a wild-card series Friday against the Seattle Mariners “is a dream come true,” said the star shortstop.

“I remember watching those games,” he continued Tuesday afternoon, shortly before Game No. 161 for the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles was rained out, “and it was just chills thinking about having the opportunity to play in an environment like that. So, (hosting the wild card) is a dream come true.”

Bichette is far from alone in anticipating the first post-season game at Rogers Centre since Game 5 of the 2016 ALCS, a 3-0 loss that sent Cleveland to the World Series. Though the Blue Jays did appear in the 2020 playoffs – getting swept in two games by the host Tampa Bay Rays – that was more of an asterisk than proper playoff experience.

Amid the pandemic, the circumstances were weird, the stands were empty and when asked how he’d describe the vibe from those games, Bichette replied bluntly: “There was none.”

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve been a part of the post-season yet,” he added.

The real thing comes Friday, after an absurd traditional doubleheader Wednesday scheduled to make up for Tuesday’s rainout, being staged because Major League Baseball always makes efforts to play 162 games if conditions are safe and there’s a weather window that allows for it.

Plans for everything from workouts by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal to who’s pitching were all, like the grass at Camden Yards, fluid, according to interim manager John Schneider.

Expect Mitch White and Yusei Kikuchi to be leaned on heavily, Casey Lawrence is among the taxi squad players here and can offer some length, and with several relievers wanting at least a bit of work to be sharp for Friday, the Blue Jays will look to manage their way through 18 innings.

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Everything will be done with eye toward optimizing for Friday.

A 5-1, rain-shortened win over the Orioles on Monday combined with Seattle’s 4-3 loss to Detroit locked up home-field for the Blue Jays, who greeted the moment with a stream of messages in their group chat, with Alek Manoah jumping in first, of course.

While qualifying for the playoffs was the priority, securing home-field advantage quickly became the secondary goal.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment since 2017,” said right-fielder Teoscar Hernandez. “I saw that in ’15 and ’16 and I want to experience that and this is the chance. … It feels great to see that in the past and now you’re going to be able to see it in person. Knowing that all of those people are cheering for you and your teammates, that’s a special feeling.”

While the post-season will be very familiar for the likes of George Springer, Matt Chapman, Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Gausman, Ross Stripling and Jose Berrios, it will be much newer for the majority of the club. Experience can’t be fast-tracked and while it can be overrated, what it can sometimes do is normalize the abnormal, which is partly the value Schneider sees in hosting.

“I just feel like you’re comfortable in your surroundings and your clubhouse and your apartment, the condo, whatever it is, family, all that kind of stuff,” said Schneider. “You’re just familiar with the routine. When everything is magnified and there’s extra stuff going on, you’re doing it in your stadium with your fans and your clubhouse and people that you’re familiar with. That kind of extra stuff I think goes a little bit unnoticed, but then you put the fans on top of it and it’s huge.”

Also huge is the impact of the new post-season format in its first season.

Though the Blue Jays would have qualified for the post-season even under last year’s system, they would have guaranteed themselves just one game, instead of a best-of-three to advance to the division series. The new system also left teams that clinch with something to play for even after the fact, with the top two division winners earning byes directly to the division series.

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Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and CEO who is also part of baseball’s competition committee, was a big supporter of the push to get a 12-team playoff during collective bargaining agreement discussions in the spring and “I actually wanted to expand it even a little bit further,” he said.

“I love the idea that was floated before of the top (playoff) team picking who they played against. I thought that was that was a cool idea,” Shapiro added. “But it’s another reflection that we’re continuing to think differently about the game and be open-minded about how we grow the game and engaging fan bases. Having more fan bases in August and September, and in April, with a tangible reason to believe there’s a chance they can play, I think it’s accomplished that. It was also important not to diminish what it means to win the division, not to diminish what it means to win more games. This has done that. This combined with a more balanced schedule next year is a sweeter spot to get to.”

The balanced schedule takes effect next season and should level the playing field in competition for wild-card berths.

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Stripling, who as the Blue Jays union-player rep at the time was part of the CBA negotiations, said players understood that bigger playoffs were always going to be part of the deal, but “we wanted it be a system that made sense for us.”

So far, so good.

“It’s exactly what we wanted,” said Stripling. “We didn’t really like any 14-team structures that we put together. Some had ghost wins, if you remember, we had teams that started with 1-0 leads in the series in one of the proposals we sent. Twelve always felt better.

“We incentivized teams to keep winning, even after you clinch a spot. You get three games in this wild card at your home field if you have the better record – that’s a huge deal. The byes are a little weird but they’re not so long that a starter gets totally rusty or out of sync or out of his routine. So it feels like it kind of hit all things that we needed, which is expanding playoffs, getting another team and not coming down to one game after 162 – everyone hated that.”

Well, maybe not the Blue Jays of 2016, who advanced to the division series on Encarnacion’s epic walk-off homer against the Orioles, a moment ingrained in Bichette’s memory as well as in franchise lore. On Friday, a new generation of Blue Jays gets their October turn.

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