Gregor Chisholm: The Blue Jays keep beating the odds, reach the post-season for the first time in four years

The Blue Jays didn’t make the postseason because of their strong play, they made it because of their resiliency. This is a team that never quit, no matter how bad things got. Perhaps they’re just too young to know any better.

Toronto opened the year without a home. Star closer Ken Giles got hurt during the first series of the season and, before long, he was joined by franchise player Bo Bichette. There was a slew of late-inning meltdowns early in the season and well-documented struggles in one-run games.

A lot of things went wrong for the Blue Jays and it was rare to watch a game without seeing at least one critical fielding error or inexcusable mental mistake on the basepaths. Yet, despite causes for concern, Toronto is heading back to the post-season for the eighth time in franchise history, and the first since 2016, thanks to an expanded playoff format and abbreviated schedule.

The Jays officially clinched their spot in the first round with a 4-1 victory over the New York Yankees on Thursday night. Fittingly, the celebration happened at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, a minor-league stadium the Jays assumed as their own after being denied entry into Canada because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “The ups and downs, the tough games, coming back and winning games after we had tough losses. We kept believing in ourselves. It’s awesome, I’m so proud of this group. I’m so happy right now.”

This isn’t 2015, when the Blue Jays entered the post-season with several reliable starters and the best offence in baseball. It’s not even 2016, when the club slightly underperformed during the regular season but had enough big names to give the fan base hope. The expectation in those years was World Series or bust. This year’s motto is just happy to be here, but now that they’ve arrived anything can happen, especially during a best-of-three series.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Toronto went door to door at the start of the year looking for a place to crash and each time got turned away. First it was the Canadian federal government, then it was Pennsylvania state officials, before long most MLB cities said no. Better teams than the Jays have come unglued by much less, but instead of using the adversity as an excuse Toronto made it a rallying cry.

Teoscar Hernandez finally tapped into some of that unmet potential by leading the team with 16 home runs and a .944 OPS. When Hernandez’s performance was paired with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Randal Grichuk, the Blue Jays had the most productive offensive outfield in the AL. Forget the Bronx Bombers, it was Toronto’s outfield that led the league in fWAR (4.8) and slugging (.494). Who saw that coming?

On the mound, veteran Hyun-Jin Ryu arrived as advertised. Toronto’s biggest expenditure of the offseason tossed seven scoreless in the clincher versus New York; he has been a solidifying force in the rotation all year. He might not have pitched as many innings as some would have liked, but he was effective almost every time out as evidenced by a 2.69 ERA, which ranks 10th among qualified pitchers in the AL.

Outside of Ryu, the Jays didn’t get much production out of their rotation. Instead it was the bullpen, flush with young starters who normally would have been in the minors, that took on a starring role. Thomas Hatch, Ryan Borucki and Anthony Kay all had turns in the spotlight while seasoned veterans like Anthony Bass and Rafael Dolis, who closed out Thursday’s win over New York, held down the late innings. When healthy, Canadian Jordan Romano looked like a star in the making.

Throughout everything, the rebuild continued. Nate Pearson made his long-anticipated debut and cult hero Alejandro Kirk, who hit another two-run double on Thursday, became a surprise addition for the stretch run. The organization’s depth was evident in other areas as Santiago Espinal, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy and many others used the constant roster shuffling as an opportunity to showcase what they can do.

“What surprised me was that when the good players got hurt, somebody else picked them up,” Montoyo said. “That’s how you make it to the playoffs.”

No matter what happens over the next week or two, the Blue Jays should be pleased with making it this far. In spring training, Toronto looked like it was still at least another full year away from contending. The Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and possibly even the Boston Red Sox figured to finish ahead of the Jays and compete for the final post-season spot. Instead, Toronto’s berth was a foregone conclusion by the end of August.

The Jays are now slightly ahead of schedule on their path to contention. Toronto should be better over the next couple of years than it is now, but if nothing else the young core will gain valuable experience that can be used as motivation in future years.

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Baseball isn’t as easy to predict as some of the other major sports. Being the best team in the regular season doesn’t mean anything in October. One team, or even one player, can get hot and everything changes. So, while the Jays should not be expected to advance like they did in 2015 and 2016, nobody can say for sure they won’t.

Toronto defied the odds to get to this point. Starting next week, the club will have a chance to do it all over again. These Blue Jays are a resilient bunch.

Gregor Chisholm

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