The final stretch: A closer look at the Blue Jays’ post-season paths

Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. waits for a pitch to the Baltimore Orioles during the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

TORONTO — If there’s such a thing as a big series split, the Toronto Blue Jays earned this weekend with consecutive wins over the Tampa Bay Rays.

That ensured the Rays finished the series right where they started it four days prior — two games back of the Blue Jays in the American League wild-card race. And, thanks in part to the Seattle Mariners somehow blowing an 11-2 sixth-inning lead and falling to the Kansas City Royals, it kept the Blue Jays in the driver’s seat with eyes on securing home field advantage in a wild-card series.

Toronto’s magic number to clinch a post-season berth is now four. That could be four Blue Jays wins, four Baltimore Orioles losses, or any combination therein. The earliest the Blue Jays could clinch is Tuesday. But the result’s a near inevitability. The real intrigue this week will be in the jockeying for wild card seeding between Toronto, Tampa, and Seattle. Here’s where that race stands Monday morning:

The division winners are a fait accompli. The New York Yankees can clinch the AL East with a single win over the Blue Jays this week at Rogers Centre. The Houston Astros won the AL West long ago and need only three wins or three Yankees losses to earn the league’s best record. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Guardians clinched the AL Central over the weekend and upon the Yankees’ next win — or Cleveland’s next loss — will be guaranteed to finish with the worst record of the division winners, positioning them to host one of the league’s two wild card series.

Cleveland’s opponent in that series will be the third-place wild card team. In the AL’s other wild card series, the top wild card finisher will host the second-place one. The host of each series is the home team for all three games, scheduled to be played over the weekend of Oct. 7-9. The top two division winners — Houston and New York, barring the improbable — will spend that weekend waiting to host the wild card series winners in the five-game divisional round.

So, as things stand Monday morning, the Guardians would host the Mariners in one series, while the Blue Jays would host the Rays in the other. Of course, this seeding can and likely will change. Toronto and Tampa each have nine regular season games remaining; the Mariners have 10. A lot can happen over the next week-and-a-half with only 2.5 games separating the three wild card teams. There’s even the possibility of a tie.

And remember, Game 163 tiebreakers are a thing of the past. Instead, two-team ties at the end of the season will be decided by head-to-head record. And three-team ties will come down to which club has the best combined winning percentage against the other two teams.

With the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Rays all having finished their season series against one another, we know who would have the edge in the various scenarios:

The bad news for the Blue jays is they don’t hold the hammer in any tiebreaker scenario. The only way Toronto can earn home-field advantage in the wild card round is by finishing with more wins than both Seattle and Tampa. The good news is they begin the week leading the race and can play one game worse than those two teams over the next 10 days and still host a wild card series.

And yet, if the Blue Jays play only two games worse than Tampa, or 2.5 worse than Seattle (the Mariners have a game in hand), they’re heading out on the road. And what if the three teams finish tied with identical records at the end of the season? Then the Blue Jays will enter the playoffs as the AL’s third wild card team and head to Cleveland to play the Guardians.

But one can argue that wouldn’t be a bad outcome. While the Guardians and Blue Jays have identical 86-67 records, Cleveland’s gotten there while playing 110 times against teams below .500. Toronto’s earned its record against much tougher opposition, playing sub-.500 teams only 71 times while still averaging 4.8 runs scored per game to Cleveland’s 4.3. The Guardians have a plus-58 run differential; the Blue Jays, plus-74. Cleveland’s offence has mustered a 98 wRC+; Toronto’s is an AL-best 117.

A three-game playoff rotation of Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, and Cal Quantrill supported by a bullpen with a 3.09 ERA on the season is nothing to be trifled with. But every AL playoff team will have excellent starters atop its rotation. Toronto’s separator is its league-best offence. And it ought to feel good about its ability to out-produce an anemic lineup featuring Owen Miller (86 wRC+), Will Brennan (70), Myles Straw (63), and one of Austin Hedges (46) or Luke Maile (76) in its bottom-third.

Naturally, Toronto’s best outcome in 10 days would be to host the wild card series at a raucous Rogers Centre — regardless of opponent. But if that’s off the table, and the remaining options are traversing a continent to tangle with Robbie Ray, Luis Castillo, and the AL’s fourth-best offence in Seattle, navigating various zugzwang situations against the hyper-adaptable Rays at cursed Tropicana Field, or hopping over Lake Erie to face a Cleveland lineup boasting only one 20-homer bat (the Blue Jays have five), the path of least resistance is clear.

And there’s more. The post-season field won’t be re-seeded after the wild card round. The winner of the series between the third wild card team and Cleveland is guaranteed to go on to play the division winner with the second-best record — the Yankees. The winner of the other three-game series between the top two wild card teams goes on to play the AL’s best team — the Astros.

Now, the Yankees and Astros are both excellent clubs with run differentials in excess of plus-200. But the Yankees have played .500 baseball since the all-star break while the Astros have a better second-half winning percentage (.667) than the spectacular one they posted in the first (.648). Which is to say nothing of Houston being the more talented — and, perhaps most importantly, healthy — team on paper. It’s clear who you’d rather play if given the choice.

Simply put — if the Blue Jays finished third in the wild card race, they’d be looking at a Guardians and Yankees path to the ALCS, rather than a Mariners/Rays and Astros one. It’s still baseball; still a series of slightly weighted coin flips. But it’s undeniable that Toronto’s win probabilities would be a few percentage points higher if it was looking at the Cleveland and New York side of the bracket.

Regardless, Toronto’s goal entering the week is clear — win as often as possible to secure home field advantage in a wild card series. That quest begins with a considerable challenge as the Yankees arrive at Rogers Centre Monday with plenty still to play for. A division still to clinch; a home run record to chase; a testy series loss in the Bronx the last time these two teams met to avenge. If you had to choose a remaining schedule from the three wild card teams, it probably wouldn’t be Toronto’s:

The Mariners are definitely best positioned for this final stretch, as they draw cupcake matchups at home against the Rangers (65-87), Athletics (56-97), and Tigers (60-92). But Seattle is coming off a similarly cushy stretch in which it went 3-7 against the Angels, Athletics and Royals. There are no givens in MLB.

The Rays, meanwhile, will have to battle through a long road trip, but will encounter a couple of teams in the Guardians and Astros that will be prioritizing rest and optimizing their post-season pitching plans rather than putting everything they have into winning each night. They’ll then finish the season against a checked-out Red Sox club that’s pitched to an AL-worst 5.14 ERA over the second half.

The Blue Jays will at least get a chance to beat up on the Nick Pivetta’s and Rich Hill’s of the world later this week following what’s certain to be an intense clash with the Yankees. And in their final series of the season, at Camden Yards against the upstart Orioles, the Blue Jays may encounter a team that’s eased off the gas after being eliminated from the hunt.

Or, from another perspective, one competing free of pressure and keen to play spoiler against a team it had a heated run-in with earlier this month. Pick whichever narrative you like, it’s still baseball. MLB history is littered with examples of on-field results defying on-paper projections. All we’re guaranteed is a gripping week-and-half as the Blue Jays, Rays, and Mariners jockey for position. Toronto starts with the inside track. Where they finish is anyone’s guess.

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