Never mind just squeezing into a wild-card spot. The Toronto Blue Jays might find themselves among the American League contenders at season's end if their strong run of play continues.
A so-so start firmly behind them, the Blue Jays have risen to a surprising second-place position in the East Division standings. With a new expanded playoff structure set to debut, the timing couldn't be better.
"The intensity has been there this whole time because you feel like you almost have to win every game," said Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo.
The 23-18 Blue Jays entered play against the New York Yankees on Tuesday night with a 90.1-per cent chance of reaching baseball's post-season, boosted from 10 to 16 teams for the truncated 2020 campaign.
Instead of a 60-game regular season where only modest gains were expected, Toronto is in great shape to make its first playoff appearance since 2016.
Last month, the idea of cracking the bottom of the eight-team AL playoff picture seemed like a possibility. A run of 16 victories in 23 games has the Blue Jays aiming higher.
"We're playing together but definitely we all have that desire to win," outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., said Tuesday via translator Hector Lebron. "And it's reflected on the field."
The powerhouse Tampa Bay Rays look like a virtual lock to win the East. But if Toronto holds on to second place, a seeding as high as fourth in the eight-team AL playoffs is possible.
Of course, there is little home-field advantage this year given that fans aren't allowed in stadiums. However, an improved seeding should make for a more favourable opponent.
Every team that qualifies for the post-season will play a best-of-three wild-card series (No. 1 vs. No. 8; No. 2 vs. No. 7 and so on). That round will be followed by a division series, championship series and World Series.
So how did Toronto get here? The pitching staff is much improved this season and the offence has delivered. Avoidable mistakes on the defensive end and on the basepaths have not been too costly.
Forced out of Rogers Centre because of border restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blue Jays have also been right at home in Buffalo, N.Y.
Entering play Tuesday, Toronto is 9-5 at Sahlen Field since debuting at the normal home of the triple-A Buffalo Bisons on Aug. 11. Since then, the Blue Jays lead the major leagues with 169 runs scored, 265 hits and 104 extra-base hits.
"I think it's been more about not chasing bad pitches," Montoyo said Tuesday afternoon on a video call. "I think we've done a great job with that. And when you do that, then you're going to get better pitches to hit."
Many players have been as advertised this season. Hyun-Jin Ryu has delivered as the ace. Bo Bichette, expected back soon from injury, has been a force. Randal Grichuk and Cavan Biggio have provided a steadying presence and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., remains fearsome in the batter's box.
There have also been several surprises. Teoscar Hernandez is enjoying a breakout season, though he's now out with an oblique strain. Gurriel, the American League player of the week, took a .301 average into Tuesday's game while Rowdy Tellez has an OPS of .909.
Role players like Travis Shaw, Joe Panik and Santiago Espinal have been effective. Toronto's bullpen has been potent even with soon-to-be-returning closer Ken Giles on the injured list for six weeks.
Instead of looking to unload assets at the trade deadline, general manager Ross Atkins upgraded the roster. When injuries hit the rotation, Atkins made moves — notably acquiring Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners — to provide much-needed depth on the mound.
A 12-7 win in Monday's series opener against New York — highlighted by Toronto's 10-run sixth inning — left the Blue Jays feeling bullish about the stretch drive. In addition to the Yankees, Toronto will play series against the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore before closing the season Sept. 27 against the Orioles.
At the start of the season, this stretch — 10 games in 18 days against the Yankees — was circled on the calendar. Baseball observers felt it would provide a true indication of whether the Blue Jays were the real deal in 2020.
"I'll say the big test is when we pass through the playoffs and when we win the World Series," said Gurriel, not lacking for confidence. "That's going to be our big test."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press