TORONTO – No matter what happens from here on out, this will always be an incomparable season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Expanded playoffs or not, clinching the eighth post-season berth in franchise history is a watershed moment, capping a young group’s transition from club-on-the-rise to club-that-has-arrived, completed at the unlikely refuge of Sahlen Field in Buffalo, without playing a single game at their Rogers Centre home.
At one point in these pandemic days of disarray, barnstorming the entire 60-game schedule was a real possibility for the Blue Jays. Instead, after free agent add Hyun-Jin Ryu silenced the New York Yankees over seven dominant innings in a 4-1 victory Thursday, they celebrated at the very same triple-A field many of their young stars passed through en route to all this, in stands empty save for the cardboard cutouts of some of their most loyal fans.
In all likelihood, the Blue Jays will finish eighth and face the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays starting Tuesday at Tropicana Field. They went 4-6 against their nemesis, the 10 games separated by a mere four runs.
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This is fun at the best times. Amid the havoc unleashed by COVID-19’s worldwide rampage, any bit of joy in the fight for normalcy is worth savouring all the more. That’s why bigger-picture discussions about how applicable what the Blue Jays have done this year is over a regular 162-game schedule can wait until all is said and done.
There are some loose parallels to the club’s first AL East title in 1985 in this playoff berth in the way it represents a coming of age for a young core. Back then it was George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez and Dave Stieb, while now it’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who opened the scoring with a solo home run, Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette, whose back-to-back doubles in the third doubled the lead, along with Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
“It’s really rewarding when you see the success that we were able to translate from the minor-leagues to the big leagues,” said Biggio. “We have a lot of work to do. I think that we’re just scratching the surface on what we’re going to be able to do at this level. So to see it coming out this early on in our careers, it gives us a little glimpse of what we can end up doing in the future.”
Alejandro Kirk, the 21-year-old catcher being used at DH in a preview of a lefty lineup for the post-season, added to his growing legend with a two-run double in the sixth, adding to a lead that stood up. Pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez nearly erased a 4-1 deficit in the eighth when he came up with the bases loaded and two out and drove a ball that Randal Grichuk reeled in against the wall in centre.
Rafael Dolis closed things out in the ninth and the Blue Jays poured onto the field in jubilation.
Underpinning the development within the young core has been Ryu, a stability post in a rotation that didn’t throw a pitch in the seventh inning until Thursday. The left-hander was hit around by the Yankees the last time he faced them, but this time relied mostly on his slider and changeup as he mixed five pitches to keep them off-balance.
He’s lined up to pitch the playoff opener, with Taijuan Walker and, if necessary, Matt Shoemaker, in all likelihood, to follow him.
“It’s incredibly valuable when you have an ace like that you can run out in the first game of a series,” said swingman Ross Stripling, his teammate with the Dodgers last year and now, “and just know he’s going to work his tail off for 100 pitches, keep guys off balance and give us a good chance to win Game 1, which in a three-game series is a huge deal.”
The Blue Jays still have three regular-season games to go, against the visiting Baltimore Orioles. Nate Pearson, just activated from the injured list, will need an outing and the status of Jordan Romano, slated to throw a bullpen Friday, will be closely watched. Rowdy Tellez will continue working back from his knee injury, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be ready in time for Tuesday.
Either way, Sunday they’ll be leaving Sahlen Field for the final time this year, not to go home, but to move on.
“We feel like we have such an advantage in Buffalo,” said Stripling. “You can tell the Yankees don’t want to be here. (Masahiro) Tanaka looked like he wanted nothing to do with pitching in Buffalo (Wednesday) night. So I feel like we have a little bit of an advantage and wish we could start a playoff series here. But we’ll be ready wherever we have to go.”