This year’s version of the Blue Jays haven’t always looked like a playoff-calibre team but, because of an expanded format and abbreviated schedule, they are post-season bound for the first time since 2016.
Toronto officially clinched its 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 Blue Jays assumed as their own after being left without a home earlier in the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Jays didn’t necessarily deserve this spot in the post-season because of their strong play. Toronto’s early part of the schedule was plagued with a slew of late-inning meltdowns and one-run losses. As the year progressed, the group’s lack of fundamentals became apparent through frequent fielding errors and gaffes on the basepaths. In a normal year, the mental mistakes would have cost Toronto a shot at October baseball, but not when 16 teams qualify.
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 are anything can happen. In baseball, anything goes, especially during a best-of-three series.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. When the season opened in late July, the Jays didn’t know where they would be playing their first home game, let alone where they would be playing in October. Within a week, Ken Giles was lost to injury and, before long, franchise player Bo Bichette went down too. Better teams than the Jays have come unglued by much less, but instead of using the adversity as an excuse Toronto used it as 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. in left and Randal Grichuk in centre, the Blue Jays fielded 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 lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu arrived as advertised. It was fitting that Toronto’s biggest expenditure of the off-season tossed seven scoreless in the clincher vs. New York because 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, though, the Blue Jays didn’t get much production out of their rotation. Instead it was the bullpen, flush with a slew of young starting pitchers who normally would have been pitching in the minor leagues, 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 all this, the rebuild continued. Right-hander 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 too as Santiago Espinal, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy and many others used the constant roster shuffling as an opportunity to showcase what they can do.
No matter what happens over the next week or two, the Blue Jays should be pleased with themselves for making it this far. In spring training, Toronto looked like it was still at least another full year away from contending. MLB’s late announcement of an expanded post-season format gave the Jays more reasons to be optimistic, but even then, most would have expected Toronto to miss out.
The Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and possibly even the Boston Red Sox were, at the very least, supposed to compete with the Blue Jays for the final playoff spot. The Rangers and Red Sox have been out of it for weeks and Toronto’s post-season berth became a foregone conclusion by the start of September.
The Jays are now slightly ahead of schedule on their path to contention. Toronto should be a lot better over the next couple of years than it is right now, but if nothing else the young core will gain valuable experience that can be used as motivation in future years. At this point, the Jays are playing with house money and there’s nothing scarier than a team with nothing to lose.
Baseball isn’t as easy to predict as some of the other major professional 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 Blue Jays should not be expected to advance like they did in 2015 and 2016, nobody can say for sure that 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.