Six players to watch in the American League wild-card round

Blair and Barker healthy debate on how the Blue Jays should utilize their starters in the Wild Card series vs. Seattle, more specifically if Alek Manoah and Jays win Game 1, then do you hold Kevin Gausman for either a possible Game 3, or the ALDS?

The post-season is a compilation of moments — an at-bat, an inning, a game and, ultimately a series.

Jackie Bradley, Jr., had his moments in 2018 when he was named most valuable player in the American League Championship Series as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

Three, in fact.

Two home runs. One double … nine (count ‘em) runs batted in. To expand it further, Red Sox manager Alex Cora tosses in a homer that Bradley hit in the subsequent World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Cometh the hour, etc. ….

“He had four good swings,” Cora said last week. “A double against (Gerrit) Cole. We were down 1-0 in the Series. A homer against (Roberto) Osuna. The one against Kenley Jansen. And of course he was defensively elite.

“People think he hit, like, .550 in that series. But it was under .200. Four good swings, but he changed the complexion of the ALCS with that double off Cole. That was huge … because we were trending in the wrong direction.

“It’s not how many,” Cora said. “It’s when.”

Bradley, a 33-year-old outfielder signed on Aug. 9 by the Toronto Blue Jays. will not make our ‘Six To Watch’ in the American League wild-card playoff round. Sorry. Chances are he will play a role as a late-inning defensive replacement … but that doesn’t mean there isn’t another Bradleyesque performance out there, either in this series between Bradley’s Blue Jays and the Seatte Mariners or the Tampa Bay RaysCleveland Guardians series.

Bradley indeed hit .200 in the 2018 ALCS against the Houston Astros — one of the loudest 3-for-15s in post-season history. Two of the hits were homers, including a grand slam off Osuna in the eighth inning of Game 3 to bust open what would turn into an 8-2 Red Sox win. The other hit was a bases-clearing double off Cole in Game 2 that gave the Red Sox a 5-4 lead they’d never relinquish en route to a 7-5 win to even the best-of-seven series.

Bradley drove in nine of the Red Sox’s 29 runs in the ALCS and also had four walks. The Red Sox won the World Series that year, with Bradley — 2-for-12 in the AL Division Series — going 3-for-13 against the Dodgers. One of those World Series hits was a homer off Dodgers closer Jansen with two out in the eighth inning of Game 3 that tied the score at 1-1. The game would last 18 innings before the Dodgers won 3-2 — their only win of the series.

Bradley’s combined post-season average in 2018 was .186. His career post-season mark is .185. But he’s a part of Red Sox – and by extension – baseball history. So, too, is Steve Pearce. Yes, that Steve Pearce, who was chosen World Series MVP in 2018 after the Blue Jays traded him to Boston.

“I was put in a position to succeed in some pretty big situations,” said Bradley. “To be able to come through against the best players in the most important games is what everybody lives for and dreams of … and I was fortunate.

“A lot of people get caught up in you have to have as personally amazing game or something like that instead of just focusing on that one, particular moment,” Bradley said. “Maybe you struck out two times, but if you get the job done when you need to, everybody forgets the other at-bats. Learn from the past, then forget it. Execute then and there. It’s all about the present.”

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Bradley and George Springer — who hit .381 with three doubles and a homer in that series against Bradley’s Red Sox — have the heftiest post-season pedigrees in the Blue Jays clubhouse, and while they’re available to pass on wisdom, Bradley says words only matter so much.

“You can talk about it and discuss what it might feel like, but nothing can compare to actually seeing it, living it and doing it,” he said. “Physically? You don’t prepare any differently. Mentally? Yeah, some might. But you really have to try and treat the game the same.”

Cora was a rookie manager in 2018. This season, Bradley is once again playing for a rookie manager: John Schneider, who has been in charge since the firing of Charlie Montoyo in July.

“This team is great,” Bradley said. “It’s a playoff team. It’s just a matter of playing your best baseball when you get there.”

So, who will write themselves large in the best of three AL wild-card series? Some thoughts …


Bo Bichette, SS, Blue Jays

He has carried his team offensively for, gosh, the better part of two months but it’s OK to admit that one of your worst nightmares is Bichette pooching a ground ball or, more likely, sailing a throw over Vladdy’s head. It’s OK. Admit it.

Bichette has had issues defensively, finishing with 23 errors, second-highest among all Major League shortstops behind Javier Baez’s 26. He was third-last in defensive fWAR and outs above average, and it sure does seem as if the ball finds him, doesn’t it?

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Bichette committed two errors in the final game of the Rays’ two-game playoff series sweep of the Blue Jays in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The second of those led to four unearned runs in an 8-2 loss. That game was played in front of family and friends at Tropicana Field. The atmosphere at the Rogers Centre will be a much greater test of his heartbeat. Speaking of which …

Andres Gimenez, 2B, Guardians

They make contact, don’t strike out much and run the hell out of the bases while pitching and playing defence. Meet the Guardians: the youngest team to advance to the post-season since the 1986 New York Mets. And while most of the focus will be on Jose Ramirez and Rookie of the Year candidate Steven Kwan, Gimenez looms large.

The 24-year-old all-star second baseman had a career-best 18-game streak of reaching base end in Game 162 of the regular season, during which he slashed .328/.411/.453. Gimenez finished behind only Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt in bWAR, posting a figure that was the third-highest by a second baseman of his age behind only Eddie Collins.

Gimenez is one of five Guardians players in the top 50 in Fangraphs base-running metric. Twelve of his 17 home runs were hit after the sixth inning, four after the eighth and he was 5-for-10 in extra innings.

Shane McClanahan, LHP, Rays

You can make the case that the Rays, who are limping into the post-season with a 3-7 record, have the least settled rotation going into the post-season, with McClanahan giving up 11 earned runs in his last four outings over 15 innings, during which he hasn’t been extended past 83 pitches.

McClanahan spent time on the IL with a left shoulder impingement at the end of August and while his velocity was waiting for him, he had to pitch through a minor neck issue.

Possible Game 2 starter Tyler Glasnow has been limited to two starts after coming back from Tommy John surgery and while he’s hit 99 m.p.h. and sat at 97, it’s unlikely he gets a shot at more than twice through the lineup.

The Rays are gonna do Rays things … but McClanahan needs to better against the Guardians than he was on July 31, when he was touched for five runs and seven hits in a 10-4 loss, one of his worst starts of the season before the IL stint.

The Guardians put on baseball’s version of the full-court press; McClanahan needs to limit traffic early or this one could get away from them. For once the Rays are facing a playoff team that might be able to out-‘Little Engine That Could’ them.

Andrés Muñoz, RHP, Mariners

You might remember closer Paul Sewald: he was last seen by Blue Jays fans making a sweeping motion as he retired Springer on a ground ball back to the mound in a 6-5 Mariners win that capped off a four-game sweep in July.

Muñoz has allowed four earned runs in his last 35 appearances — three of them coming in one game — and has not allowed an earned run in 38 of 42 games with three saves and 18 holds. He led AL relievers with 96 strikeouts and issued just 15 walks and while he might not be the Mariners’ closer, chances are he’ll get the call in high leverage against a pocket of Jays righty hitters.

Muñoz has hit 102 m.p.h. twice and has added four m.p.h. to a slider that he now throws 65 per cent of the time compared to just 30 per cent in 2021;

Julio Rodriguez, CF, Mariners

Enough about unsung heroes rising to the occasion: how about a young, budding superstar who became the first player in history to hit at least 25 home runs and steal 25 bases in his debut season and whose team was 75-56 when he was in the lineup and 15-16 when he was out?

Rodriguez’s monster year was interrupted by a back injury but he had three hits in his return Monday and belted his 28th homer Wednesday. How he holds up on the Rogers Centre turf might be worth watching but centre field’s going to be tough to take your eyes off with Rodriguez and Springer out there.

Raimel Tapia, OF, Blue Jays

You can take it to the bank: the Blue Jays will once again spend the off-season looking for more left-handed balance for its righty-heavy lineup. General manager Ross Atkins said after last season that he was well aware his team didn’t have the platoon advantage too often, especially late in games.

The addition of Tapia had a kind of ‘Plan B’ feeling to it, but his lefty bat and Whit Merrifield’s right-handed moxie and speed have helped turn the bottom of the order into a more difficult proposition for opposing teams.

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Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s, injury opened the door for more playing time and Tapia has turned into the team’s agent of chaos. With the Mariners’ righty-laden bullpen, and small sample-size success against Tapia going back to his time with the Colorado Rockies, this is a bit of a hunch play.

It’s still all about George and Vladdy and Bo … but, as Bradley Jr., can attest, you never know. It’s often as much a case of ‘when’ as it is ‘what’ or even ‘who.’


Jays over Mariners 2-0

Guardians over Rays 2-1

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