Strategic subplots to watch as Blue Jays push for playoffs in final week

Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Sportsnet Central to break down the Toronto Blue Jays' top priorities, aside from clinching a wild-card berth, in their remaining regular-season games, saying saving Kevin Gausman for a potential Game 1 should be priority 1b

TORONTO – The first priority – the thing that matters the most this week – is getting in.

With three more wins, the Blue Jays advance to the post-season, and if they get help from the out-of-town scoreboard, they could sneak in with just one or two more. Now 87-69, the Blue Jays are as well positioned to reach the playoffs as they’ve been all year. At FanGraphs, their playoff odds have reached 97.8 per cent.

Of course until that number reaches 100, the Blue Jays still have work to do. For now, they must continue to play and manage with the sense of urgency that’s lingered for most of the last month. It won’t be easy against Gerrit Cole, Michael King and the Yankees this week or against the Rays on the weekend.

But alongside the need for wins, some subplots merit a little attention, too. For some teams, those revolve around milestones or awards, but not in Toronto. With a trip to the playoffs becoming more and more likely, these are the developments to watch over the course of the final six regular season games… 

Can Brandon Belt get up to speed at the plate?

It’s now been two weeks since Brandon Belt (back) last played at the big-league level, but he now feels “ready to get back out there” as reported by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi.

With the triple-A season now over, there’s no real chance of a rehab assignment for the 35-year-old. That likely means he’ll have to find his timing at the big-league level – and while that’s hardly anything new for a player who missed most of spring training and didn’t go on a rehab assignment when he came off the injured list in June, no one wants him going into the playoffs cold.

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With 16 home runs and an .839 OPS, Belt’s an important part of this team’s offence. That’s especially true as the Blue Jays’ likeliest playoff opponents feature predominantly right-handed pitchers: Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale of the Rays plus Sonny Gray, Pablo Lopez and Joe Ryan of the Twins.

Under those circumstances, the Blue Jays have a clear need for the left-handed hitting Belt. Ideally, he’d use the week ahead to prove he’s ready for impact once again.

Can Cam Eden get up to speed on the bases?

Already, the Blue Jays have successfully used outfielder Cam Eden as a pinch runner. Late in Saturday’s game, he replaced Santiago Espinal at second base before advancing to third on a ground ball and scoring the tying run on a wild pitch.

It represented an encouraging development for the 25-year-old Eden, whose big-league debut came just a couple days earlier at Yankee Stadium. Yet there are more firsts to come for Eden, who has yet to attempt a stolen base at the MLB level.

With 53 steals in 57 attempts in the minor leagues this year, there’s plenty of reason to believe Eden’s up to the challenge. Yet getting some reps in at the MLB level would be ideal. Maybe that comes late in a big game sometime during this homestand.

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But in the scenario that Eden’s not needed and the Blue Jays clinch with a couple days to spare, they should find ways to get him into the game so he can attempt a couple steals. After all, if he ends up on a playoff roster, he could be called on to steal a base during a pivotal moment. You don’t want that attempt to be his first.

And realistically there’s likely no plan where he’s taking a high-leverage at-bat this post-season, but you never know. May as well get him a couple at-bats as well.

Can the Blue Jays afford to line up their pitching?

If needed, Kevin Gausman lines up to pitch the final game of the regular season on Sunday. Of course, the Blue Jays would far prefer to line him up for Game 1 of the Wild Card series next Tuesday, and they’ll be able to guarantee that outcome if they clinch a playoff berth by Saturday.

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But even beyond Gausman it’d be ideal to rest key relievers when possible. Jordan Hicks has pitched in four of six, for instance, and Jordan Romano dealt with a cracked fingernail Saturday. Now, there are still games to win, and that means counting on some high-leverage arms, but it’s probably wise not to overdo it with Romano if there’s risk of aggravating his fingernail. He’s just too essential to October to burn in September. In the meantime, there are other trusted arms.

Plus, not only would a few days off provide rest for the relievers who need it, the Blue Jays would surely prefer not to offer the Rays extra looks at their top pitchers next weekend. A few days later, they could be playing them with the season on the line.

As of now, Hyun Jin Ryu and Yusei Kikuchi line up to pitch Friday and Saturday, but neither would be likely to start in the Wild Card round so there’s no worry about over-exposing them. If possible, the Blue Jays would likely deploy some sort of a bullpen day Sunday with Bowden Francis a candidate to cover a few innings if he’s recalled from triple-A.  

There’s work to do first, of course, with three wins now separating the Blue Jays from October baseball.

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