At this point in 2023, some of us have yet to switch the setting on our thermostat from “Heat” to “Cool”, and yet, we’ve already spent time and energy scoreboard watching and checking the standings in the American League East.
The customary entreaties at this point of the season are usually reminders that “it’s a long season” and “it’s early”, but thus far, this season has hit differently. From the outset, there’s been urgency and expectation.
It stands to reason, though, given where the Blue Jays are in their competitive window, and their history in general. Five years ago, if you were looking at the future development of the club and their then-prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, you could have counted off the years and found yourself targeting 2023 as the year where they would begin to hit their peaks, and team around them should be sufficiently constructed to support them.
From the current perspective, we’ve seen the development of those two players, as well as the disappointments of the past two seasons’ endings. We’ve seen the front office make what appears to be honest and tough assessments of the team, and the necessary adjustments in personnel to push the team from good to great.
If previous seasons were met with enthusiasm by fans, this year was met with expectation. Being competitive this year would not suffice, nor would hanging around the edges of the wild card race. It isn’t quite an “all in” season, but fans have staked a large portion of their passion into this season’s success.
It’s made the first five weeks feel very nervy. Anxious, even.
It certainly doesn’t rachet the tension down to see the dreaded Tampa Bay Rays – the Blue Jays’ most dreaded AL East rival – jump out to a historically great start, seemingly leaving their divisional combatants in the dust before they had even faced most of them directly. By the time the devilish Rays had finally squared up directly with the Jays, the games took on as aura of “must win”.
It was April. It was absurd. And yet, there we were.
Series wins against the Rays, the New York Yankees, and last year’s heartbreakers, the Seattle Mariners, were perhaps enough buoy the spirits and feed the excitement of Jays fans. Having two of those series happened in the packed and freshly refurbished environs of the home ballpark only helped to magnify the feverish anticipation.
Pausing for a moment on the remodelling of the ballpark, it seems very much aligned with the changes on the field. As the team’s executive leadership wasn’t satisfied with well enough when it came to the atmosphere and amenities within the Rogers Centre, they also spent the offseason reconstructing the roster of a team that had won 92 games the previous season and could have been seen as ascendent even if they had taken a status quo approach to the offseason.
And much as the new architecture and construction of the stadium’s outfield seems to have made an impression and a difference for the fans, the team on the field seems to have been cleverly engineered to be more competent and competent.
That’s not to say that the season has been flawless and smooth thus far. The putative staff ace coming into the season, Alek Manoah, has been the team’s least effective starter to this point. And although Kevin Gausman has looked Cy Young worthy in most outings, he’s had two disaster starts that make confidence hard to find for fans.
Moreover, the bullpen has had some shaky days and nights, and whether if that is because of John Schneider’s management of his pitchers or their performance, it certainly doesn’t allow a fan to relax on a late inning lead. Certainly not with the memory of last year’s Wild Card round seemingly impossible to suppress.
Still, one of the overriding senses drawn from this early part of the schedule is the resiliency of this iteration of the Blue Jays. They have come back from early deficits, scrapped and clawed and hung in to win games. When they’ve lost, they’ve generally bounced back. When they’ve had a bad series, like last week in Boston, they seem to be able to recognize their faults and correct them quickly.
The 2023 Blue Jays don’t get shook, they shake it off.
That knowledge might have previously been enough reason for confidence, but even with the team’s ability to stand up and push back, fans can be permitted their uneasiness. A good start to the season still has the Jays staring up at the Rays and the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, with the Yankees being the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox proving themselves last week to not be the doormat that some had suspected.
Moreover, the next six weeks of their schedule is completely filled with legitimate contenders. Yes, it is early, and yes, the season is long. But this next stretch is going to be grind on the team, not to mention the emotions of the fanbase.