Late-season drama means Blue Jays keep pushing key players – for now

Jon Morosi joins Jamie Campbell to break down the AL and NL Wild Card races should the Blue Jays lose to the Rays today, with the Mariners surging at the perfect time, the Diamondbacks and Astros duel, and the Marlins with a magic number of one.

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays have played 26 times this September. So has Alejandro Kirk.

And while he hasn’t started all of those games, Kirk hasn’t had the benefit of a single day at designated hitter, let alone a full day off.

Physically, it’s a lot to ask. And should the Blue Jays reach the playoffs, Kirk will be back there again, starting every game for at least a few more weeks until Danny Jansen could conceivably return.

It’s not ideal, yet the Blue Jays have needed everything Kirk’s had to offer. Once Jansen broke a bone in his right hand on Sept. 1, it was clear Kirk would be asked to log more innings at baseball’s most demanding defensive position. And because the Blue Jays have yet to clinch, they’re asking players like Kirk for more than usual.

“It’s huge,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider, who noted that the added at-bats may have helped Kirk’s timing. “For him to play in every game since Jano went down says a lot, and you add his bat to what is already elite defence, it’s a huge boost for us.”

By and large, it’s worked. The Blue Jays have gone 16-10 without Jansen and remain well-positioned to advance to the post-season with their magic number to eliminate Seattle down to one. But there could be a cost to relying so heavily on the likes of Kirk, so if there’s a way to get him a day or two of rest, the Blue Jays will welcome it. At this point, he’s likely their most indispensable player.

“I’ve been playing a little more than usual, but that’s what it’s all about,” Kirk said via interpreter Hector Lebron after a two-hit game that included a homer. “The results are there, so I’ve just got to continue to keep working hard and finish strong.”

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If the Blue Jays had played better earlier in the season, they would have clinched by now and this would have been a time to turn things over to their reserves the way Kevin Cash and the Rays expect to at times this weekend. Instead, Saturday’s a game with real stakes for the Blue Jays which means best-case scenario now leads to one stress-free day: Sunday.

Maybe that’ll be enough when paired with the off-day Monday ahead of a potential Wild Card series, but on the other side of the field the Rays have earned the privilege of navigating a different balancing act: how do they keep players fresh while also ensuring they get enough rest?

“It’s a fair question,” Cash replied. “You want to be respectful (of other teams competing for the post-season by fielding a competitive team), but we’re going to prioritize our guys, making sure that they’re as fresh and ready to go as much as possible. That doesn’t change the way we play the game … but rest will be a focal point for the three days.”

For some Blue Jays, that’s a luxury that may or may not be possible. Like Kirk, Brandon Belt would be relied upon heavily during the Wild Card round, when the Blue Jays would likely face only right-handed starting pitchers regardless of whether they play the Rays or the Twins.

Since Belt was just activated from the injured list this week, he needs regular at-bats, but there’s no need to overdo it for the 35-year-old, who has now homered in back-to-back games. Ideally, playing Belt would be an option rather than a necessity by Sunday.

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Plus, as long as Belt’s in the DH spot that means other Blue Jays are on their feet every day. Having the DH slot open for someone like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (knee), Matt Chapman (finger) or George Springer would be a welcome bonus Sunday.

Of course, the biggest variable of all here is whether the Blue Jays need Kevin Gausman. Clinch by Saturday night and Gausman’s next outing will come in the post-season. Fail to do so, and the Blue Jays will burn their ace just to get in. They’ll do it if they must, obviously, but preserving Gausman would be far preferable when it comes to advancing past the first round.

Plus, as we saw late Friday once the score became lopsided, there are valuable chances for others to get MLB reps once regulars like Kirk and Belt leave the game. Santiago Espinal and Davis Schneider both entered late after spending the better part of a week on the bench and got chances to regain their timing.

Even pinch runner extraordinaire Cam Eden got his first big-league at-bat, striking out after nearly hitting a flare down the right field line that landed just foul. It’s all useful because those players could all be called upon in big spots next week and you don’t want them coming in cold.

The sooner the Blue Jays clinch, the more they can rest their stars and mix in their role players. In that sense, not all wins are created equal. A win on Saturday would do more than assure the Blue Jays of a playoff spot – it would also improve their chances of succeeding once they get there.

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