TORONTO – A path to the post-season seemed unlikely to be this straight-forward for the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this month, when that four-game sweep suffered at the hands of the Texas Rangers dropped their playoff odds all the way down to 33.6 per cent.
At that point, it looked like they’d be facing 2.5 weeks of attrition to leapfrog one of the American League West teams ahead of them for the final two wild-card spots, in need of some help from others.
Three days later, they were back in control of their own fate after a sweep of the Boston Red Sox pushed their odds, as calculated by FanGraphs, up to 78.5 per cent, and rather than stressing through their final regular-season homestand, they’re on the cusp of a clinch party instead.
A way more comfortable way to finish than expected after that Texas set, John Schneider?
“It was still tough – every night is a roller-coaster,” the Blue Jays manager replied. “But if you look at the last two weeks in a nutshell, it changes with every hour, every pitch. If you’re looking at odds to get in, it was a crazy week, it swung so many different ways. But I like the way it’s played out the last week, for sure. The biggest part of that, though, is just how we’re playing.”
Their recent run was interrupted Tuesday night when closer Jordan Romano, struggling for a second consecutive outing, gave up a two-run homer to Austin Wells on his third pitch of the ninth in a 2-0 loss to the New York Yankees.
The blow came after Kevin Gausman and Michael King had duelled brilliantly to a stalemate and Romano, who blew a save Saturday at the Tampa Bay Rays while pitching through a cracked middle fingernail, took the helm of a 0-0 game. His second pitch of the inning was a single by Gleyber Torres and the next one was Wells’ 367-foot drive into the left-field bullpen, both on fastballs left middle-middle, stunning a Rogers Centre crowd of 40,454.
Before the game, Schneider said the fingernail issue was gone and that Romano was available as usual, and afterwards, pointed to missed location for the all-star righty, nothing more.
“The life of a closer is tough and you have to have a very short memory,” he said. “You look at the result and yeah, it wasn’t ideal tonight or on Saturday, but you look at the overall body of work and you look at the stuff and the stuff was there. If a starter makes a bad pitch in the second inning for a two-run homer and then goes seven innings, you kind of forget about it. It gets really, really magnified when you’re pitching one inning.”
Clay Holmes locked things down in the ninth against the Blue Jays (87-70), who need either three victories or some combination of their own wins and Seattle Mariners losses totalling four to clinch. They still hold the second wild-card, up 1.5 games on the Houston Astros (86-72), who lost 6-2 to the Mariners (85-72). Seattle is now two games back of Toronto.
Gausman had an inauspicious start, issuing his only two walks around a pair of loud outs, but recovered to get Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a grounder to second with his 28th pitch and cruised from there.
He didn’t allow a hit until Estevan Florial’s leadoff single in the sixth and didn’t get into trouble until the seventh, when Giancarlo Stanton hit a one-out double. The gargantuan slugger’s leaden legs helped Gausman get out of the jam, however, as he only took third on Kiner-Falefa’s single to right and then was thrown out by Bo Bichette trying to score on Oswaldo Cabrera’s chopper, Alejandro Kirk putting down a good tag after picking the relay on a hop.
“Off the bat I thought that’s probably a run scored,” Gausman said of Cabrera’s chopper in the seventh. “Obviously the guy who was at third, not the fastest guy in the league and so that probably had a say in why Bo went home. It was a huge play, obviously, for us and a big out for me in that inning. But off the bat I definitely thought he was going to be safe at home.”
Gausman’s next outing will either come Sunday, in the season finale, or in Game 1 of the wild-card round next week. His plan between outings is to prepare as if he’ll be pitching in Game 162 and then adjust his schedule if the Blue Jays clinch beforehand, leaving him with a few days of cheerleading in between.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams where the last month of the season doesn’t mean anything,” said Gausman. “So to be in the last week of the season with still kind of a question mark is fun and exciting and stressful and all the things. But that’s what you want as a player, to be in this situation, being able to control our own destiny. That’s all you can hope for.”
Like Gausman, King was similarly stingy, capitalizing on home-plate umpire’s Malachi Moore’s generous strike zone over six innings of one-hit ball. He worked around five walks two of them in the third after Kirk’s one-out single and Kevin Kiermaier’s fielder’s choice, with Guerrero eventually getting called out on a 3-2 pitch off the outside edge of the plate.
Guerrero was also caught looking at a third strike in the first, an offering Wells pretty blatantly yanked up into the zone.
George Springer walked in the third ahead of a Bichette base on balls that loaded the bases for Guerrero and had to pick up his bat after what he thought was ball four was called a strike for a full count. He then walked on the next pitch.
As Moore’s zone became clearer, the challenge for the Blue Jays was in whether to expand their zones as an adjustment to the umpire’s calls, or staying true to their approach, which they largely did.
“You don’t want to come out of your zone. You don’t want to come out of your approach, for a number of reasons,” explained Springer. “You don’t want the other team to assume that they can just throw anything anywhere and you’re going to swing at it. You also want to let the umpire know as well, if it’s not a strike, we’re not going to swing, as well. But there are times where you have to try to get the bat on the ball. It is what it is. Obviously the result wasn’t great but I think we did a good job of staying within the strike zone and getting a pitch to hit. Sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
And that’s where the Blue Jays were at Tuesday, their approach not rewarded, their closer missing a couple of spots, no real movement on their path to the post-season and no major angst over a setback with the path still clear in front of them.