TORONTO – A few weeks ago, the Texas Rangers appeared to derail the Blue Jays’ season with a four-game sweep at Rogers Centre. Late Saturday night in Seattle, they helped extend it.
By beating the Mariners in convincing 6-1 fashion Saturday, the Rangers did more than assure themselves of a spot in the post-season. They also secured the Blue Jays a playoff spot, with the identity of Toronto’s Wild Card round opponent to be determined Sunday afternoon.
It wasn’t the way the Blue Jays would have chosen to clinch, but it still counts. Bottom line, they’re in. And even beyond that, clinching on Saturday was always far, far preferable to clinching on Sunday. With a tip of the cap to the Rangers, here’s a closer look at how getting in a day early will impact the Blue Jays’ strategy moving forward…
More rest for Gausman
First and most importantly, the Blue Jays no longer have to use Kevin Gausman on Sunday. The right-hander was lined up to start if needed, but can now continue resting in preparation for Tuesday, when he’ll pitch against the Rays or the Twins.
Following Gausman in the rotation will likely be Jose Berrios and Chris Bassitt, though the club has yet to announce any plans. That’s an excellent top three and it allows Yusei Kikuchi to shift into a bullpen role for the first round. In that role, he offers bulk innings if needed – or impact stuff in shorter stints.
“We see him as a really good pitcher,” manager John Schneider said recently. “Could be in a variety of different roles when you get to the post-season … I mean, he can do either one. We need him.”
Roster move needed?
Since Gausman won’t be pitching Sunday, the Blue Jays now have six or seven more innings to cover in their regular season finale. It’s worth considering a roster move for someone like Bowden Francis just to make sure a heavily taxed bullpen doesn’t have to tire itself out unnecessarily.
Because while reaching the 90-win plateau for the third consecutive season would be a significant milestone, it’s more important to reach the playoffs rested. A fresh arm could help on that front, though optioning a player to the minors or placing someone on the injured list would impact early round playoff eligibility.
Finally, a day off
This much is certain about the Blue Jays’ Sunday lineup: Alejandro Kirk won’t be in it. After catching literally every game in September following Danny Jansen’s injury, Kirk has earned a day on the bench. While Kirk has welcomed the increase in workload, he’s arguably the Blue Jays’ most indispensable player and resting him when possible is essential.
In his place, expect Tyler Heineman to start behind the plate. And once the playoffs begin, count on Kirk to start every day.
Flexibility at DH
For most of the last week, Brandon Belt has occupied the Blue Jays’ DH slot to regain his timing following a stint on the injured list. It’s worked, as Belt has homered twice while putting together consistently good at-bats, but it’s limited Schneider’s flexibility and prevented others from getting partial days off.
On Sunday, the Blue Jays have options. If Belt wants to get a few more at bats, he could start. Otherwise, the Blue Jays could give George Springer a day off his feet or offer Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a bit of a breather (in fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Guerrero Jr. get a full day off given the knee soreness he’s battled lately).
Time for the bench to shine
With a steady dose of high-stakes, high-stress games, the Blue Jays have been inclined to rely on their regulars instead of mixing in bench players the way they might earlier in the season. As a result, at-bats have been hard to come by for Heineman, Santiago Espinal, Davis Schneider and even Whit Merrifield.
There’s a good chance all four start Sunday, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Blue Jays’ last bench player, Cam Eden, alongside them. One way or another, the Blue Jays should look to get Eden a chance to steal a base. He has yet to attempt a steal in the majors, but could be called upon to do just that in a playoff game.
Better to get the first one out of the way now. Thanks to the Rangers, Eden may get the chance to run wild while some of his more experienced teammates enjoy a little well-earned rest.