If the Blue Jays are feeling any pressure in advance of the highest-stakes baseball series to be played in Toronto in five years, they aren’t talking about it.
In fact, most are embracing a three-game showdown with the New York Yankees that begins Tuesday at a capacity-expanded Rogers Centre.
“I think these guys are ready,” is how the Jays brilliant second baseman Marcus Semien puts it. “Yes, we’re young. Yes, we’re in a playoff race that might be a little new and with fans in the stands it’s a little different than last year. But we’re ready.
“The young guys that we have are ball players. I’ll take us over anybody.”
The red-hot Yankees, winners of six in a row and in possession of the first American League wild-card spot, two games up on Toronto, figure to have something to say about it, of course.
But for a Jays team that lost 95 games in 2019, — the previous time there was a real, full Major League Baseball season — it’s a huge opportunity to cash in on a remarkable turnaround.
Like the Yankees and Red Sox (who are a game up on the Jays) it has been a tumultuous season of highs and lows. The Jays survived issues with their bullpen and starting rotation and have played more than half the season without their $150-million man, George Springer. Manager Charlie Montoyo’s team jacked the heat up at just the right time, however, and own one of the best records in the majors in September.
The margin of error may be minuscule — the team could need to finish 5-1 to snag a wild-card spot — but the opportunity in front of them feels more tantalizing than intimidating.
“People talk about pressure, we’ve been (playing those kind of games) for a while now, for more than a month,” Montoyo said. “I’m proud of this team and looking forward to coming home.
“They like being in moments like that. Pressure is a privilege and they earned the right to be in this moment.”
The moment(s) promise to be electric ones for a city starved for an in-house, big-game experience. With the Rogers Centre cleared to double COVID-restricted capacity to 30,000, it’s a good bet it will be the largest attended sports event in Toronto in more than two years.
Since returning to the downtown dome on July 30, the Jays have forged a 21-9 record to surge into playoff contention. Crowds in the 14,000 range have sounded much louder and left an impression on a team exiled to Buffalo and Dunedin for most of the past two seasons.
On television, Jays ratings are soaring with audiences topping a million viewers for parts of this past weekend’s series in Minneapolis.
“We’re excited about the energy,” said rookie starting pitcher, Alek Manoah. “We’re excited about the big series. It’s that time of year. It’s go time right now. We’re ready to compete and give everyone in Toronto a big show at home.”
That show will begin with a bit of a mystery on the mound for the home side as lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu is coming off of the injury list — following two sketchy performances prior to that — for Tuesday’s opener.
Ryu has spent much of the season in the shadow of Cy Young Award favourite Robbie Ray, but signed a four-year, $80-million US deal prior to the 2020 season to be a rock of the rotation. On Tuesday, he gets his biggest chance at providing the impact expected of such a contract since flaming out in a post-season blowout loss to the Rays this past September.
The Yankees will counter with Jameson Taillon, who is also coming off the injured list and fronting an offensive attack that has been on fire of late. Wednesday’s second game of the series will be a showdown between Jose Berrios and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole while Ray gets the ball for Thursday’s series finale as Jays hitters face Corey Kluber.
For their playoff pursuit, in all likelihood the Jays will need to take two of three from the Yankees before closing out the season with three more home games against Baltimore. Earlier this month, Montoyo’s team swept the Bronx Bombers right at Yankee Stadium and on the season the Jays have a 10-6 edge.
“It’s going to be another playoff atmosphere,” said Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. “They’re a great young team that took it to us back in New York. They’re fighting just like us for that playoff spot. It’s going to be some fun games in Toronto.”
It has been a wildly uneven year overall for the Yankees, but the sweep of a three-game weekend series at Boston’s Fenway Park gave them the upper hand over what is a four-way race for two spots when the upstart Seattle Mariners are included.
“It feels like a family coming together and pulling on the same rope,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I love the frame of mind they’re in, the fight they’re in. All along, they’ve been very confident … we’re not going to scare at all. Everyone is keenly aware of what we’re competing for.”
With six games remaining, the one-game-at-a-time cliché truly comes to life for the rebuilt Jays, especially with a mind-bending array of tie-breaking scenarios. Sure, the Red Sox have the easiest remaining schedule of the three in pursuit, but much can happen, starting with Tuesday’s clash with the Yankees.
“Everybody’s excited for it,” Jays catcher Danny Jansen said. “We’re going to play the big dogs and we’re going to play them at home in front of 30,000 fans. That’s massive. It’s going to be great.”