TORONTO • The largest crowd in more than two years was at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday night, and it was receiving a lesson in the existential dread of playoff baseball.
It was not technically, literally playoff baseball, for that doesn’t start until next week, but the Toronto Blue Jays have essentially been playing it for a month now. A September that has seen them surge into post-season contention before hitting a mini-slump has made every one of their final games close to a must-win deal.
Things had been sailing along nicely on that front on Wednesday against the New York Yankees, behind a sparkling start from Jose Berrios and early home runs from Marcus Semien and Bo Bichette. But some shaky bullpen work in the seventh inning allowed the Yankees to erase what was left of a one-time four-run deficit, tying the game at 5-5. With the out-of-town scoreboard showing the Boston Red Sox trouncing the Baltimore Orioles — Boston and New York being two of the three teams the Jays are now chasing for a playoff spot — it was getting to be desperate times for the home side. A loss would be a serious blow to their post-season chances. A loss after holding a comfortable lead would seem like much worse than that.
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But in the bottom of the eighth inning, Bichette came to the plate again and provided a lesson in the exquisite thrill of playoff baseball. Bichette, one of Toronto’s young and talented baseball scions, smashed a Clay Holmes pitch with an inside-out swing that sent the ball soaring over the left-centre fence and sent the fully vaccinated crowd into heaving joy. The list of middle infielders who can hit a pitch like that with power to the opposite field is very short, but Bichette, and his Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., have been proving themselves to be rare talents for a while now. It’s why even as the Jays have taken their fans on this extended run of terror and elation as they try to squeak into a playoff spot, there remains a consolation prize of sorts in a young roster that should be competitive for several years to come.
But the Rogers Centre was in no mood for consolation prizes on Wednesday after. After the Bichette homer restored the lead, Jordan Romano came in to close things out in the top of the ninth with a tidy save, and the doomsday scenario had been avoided.
For a night, anyway. The Jays will finish the series with the Yankees on Thursday night before happily welcoming the historically terrible Baltimore Orioles for the final three games at the dome. More playoff baseball to see if there will be playoff baseball.
If things go right for the Jays over the final weekend, it will be a culmination of a plan that has been five years in the making. If things go wrong, Jays fans will be forgiven for wondering what the hell just happened.
In any normal season, the Blue Jays, with this collection of players having these kinds of years, would be giving guys days off and setting up their ideal playoff rotation. Guerrero, 22, is having an incredible breakout season, the kind that was expected of him when he arrived in the majors as the pudgy teenage son of a Hall of Famer. Semien set a major-league record for home runs by a second baseman on Wednesday with his 44 th . Bichette drove in his 101 st run, giving the Jays four 100-RBI men in a season — Guerrero, Semien, Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez, who has the most of any of them at 112 — for the first time in club history. Robbie Ray is having a Cy Young-type season, and could probably lock the award down with a strong outing against the Yankees on Thursday night. George Springer, though injured for much of the year, has proven to be worth every bit of his monster contract when he has played. He smacked a leadoff double on Wednesday, one of three nights on the night, giving the team (and the crowd) just the jolt it needed after a loss in the series opener.
All of those strong performances have given the Jays one of the best run differentials in the American League, which is generally the best measure of whether a team is good. And a bunch of fellas having career years will tend to give your team a great run differential. And yet the team has needed this spectacular 19-8 September just to give themselves a chance over the final weekend. It defies baseball logic — the Jays have a +168 run differential while Seattle, with an almost identical record, is at -48 — but it is not exactly a mystery. Toronto had a disastrous bullpen in the first half of the season, and over the whole of it they have been just 15-15 in one-run games and 3-9 in extra innings. They didn’t win enough of the close ones, and so now here they are.
After a season in which they started with home games in Florida, and then moved to Buffalo before finally coming to Toronto, that they are in this position at all is kind of nuts. They didn’t play in their actual home stadium until July 30, and didn’t have real home crowds until, well, right about now. But the fans are here, and the stakes are high. Buckle up.