Theoretically, the MLB season is the ultimate marathon where success and failure is determined by consistency, and small slices shouldn’t determine any team’s fate.
For the Toronto Blue Jays, though, the last 12 games have flipped the script on their entire season.
On the morning of Aug. 28, the team was coming off a brutal 2-1 loss at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, and had lost 11 of its last 17 — largely against less-than-impressive competition. Not only were the Blue Jays 6.5 games out of a wild-card spot, FanGraphs gave them playoff odds of just 5.2 percent. They weren’t officially dead, but if they were wandering through the desert, vultures would’ve been taking notice.
Now the odds sit at 51.5 percent, and they are just half a game behind the New York Yankees, and one back of the Boston Red Sox. A week ago there were two teams between the Blue Jays and a playoff spot, now there are two playoff teams they’re on the verge of overtaking.
Taking three from the Oakland Athletics at home over the weekend got the club’s chances out of neutral. Laying a four-game sweep on the Yankees in New York changed the race:
The tangible benefits of the dominant performance are clear to see. While it’s harder to place a specific value on the intangible upside of the Blue Jays’ momentum or confidence levels in the midst of this streak, it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss them completely. Going into New York and thrashing a team that looked like a sure playoff bet just days before can’t be bad for the psyche. Toronto has also put itself in a position where every loss from here on out doesn’t feel like a deathblow to its chances. That should help take the pressure off a touch.
Not only is the magnitude of the team’s recent results massive, the way they’ve compiled them is encouraging.
That starts with the return of the offence, which went into a deep slumber for much of August. The Blue Jays have scored at least five runs in every game of September, getting impressive production up and down the lineup.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is back after a midseason slump, and he’s hit .412/.459/.676 so far this month. Marcus Semien is slugging nearly 1.000 (.968) during the team’s eight-game win streak. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is the MLB leader in RBIs in September (14), delivering clutch hit after clutch hit. The list of guys swinging the bat well right now is long.
Meanwhile, the current rotation doesn’t have a weak link. Since the beginning of August, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz have combined for 86.1 innings of 1.56 ERA ball. Trade deadline acquisition José Berríos had a rough patch in mid-August, but found a mechanical adjustment that’s helped him, allowing just five runs in his last three outings — with 26 strikeouts.
Hyun-Jin Ryu is coming off a brilliant scoreless outing that saw his fastball velocity spike to 91.8 mph, his second-highest total since 2014, and by far the hardest he’s thrown as a Blue Jay. If his forearm is OK after experiencing some stiffness, he has a chance to find a new gear. Alek Manoah is the only guy who’s scuffled a bit lately, but the rookie wields some impressive stuff and his season-long numbers are impressive.
Both the lineup and the rotation have been strengths for the bulk of the year — albeit not always at the same time — but one thing differentiating the team’s current streak from most of the season is that the bullpen finally seems in order. Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza have been an excellent right/left pairing at the back of the relief corps, Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards have allowed two runs between them since Aug. 22, and even Joakim Soria is back from injury.
The wild cards of the group are fireballers Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather. While Pearson has been wobbly in the early going of his return, his stuff is so good that he seems likely to find his footing. We haven’t seen Merryweather yet, but he was close to unhittable in his early-season appearances.
This group is far from elite, but at times this year it was far from functional. Now the Blue Jays bullpen isn’t just solid, it has significant upside, too.
It’s easy to see the best in a team when it is in the midst of a run like this one. It’s also easy to become intoxicated by the concept of momentum and assume that an upward trajectory is a guarantee of future success. It’s possible that this is the high point of the Blue Jays’ playoff pursuit, and there’s a losing streak just over the horizon. After all, the team seemed destined to take off after returning to Toronto with a dramatic 9-2 homestand.
There’s a lot going for Charlie Montoyo’s group, though. Even if you put aside all notions of momentum and assume their run of excellent play is nothing but a blip, the dice is weighted in the Blue Jays’ favour.
Toronto’s next challenge — and that’s a loose use of the term — is a four-game set with the Baltimore Orioles. That series includes two shortened doubleheader games, which suit the Blue Jays thanks to their superior starters, and they won’t see Orioles ace John Means. Of the 23 games Toronto has left, 14 are against the Orioles or Minnesota Twins, whose combined record is 107-172. The schedule also has another gift for them in the form of a late-September series between the Yankees and Red Sox, which guarantees one of the two teams the Blue Jays are chasing will experience a 1-2 record, or worse.
Another advantage Toronto has is the benefit of good health. The Yankees are missing three starters (Luis Severino, Domingo German, and Jameson Taillon) and three high-leverage relievers (Zack Britton, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Darren O’Day), while the Red Sox have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak that’s put major contributors like Xander Bogaerts, Nick Pivetta, and Matt Barnes on the shelf.
The biggest names on the Blue Jays IR are Cavan Biggio, who’s in the midst of a tough season, Ross Stripling, who wouldn’t crack the rotation right now, and utility man Santiago Espinal. The elephant in the room is George Springer, but he could play as soon as Friday. The Blue Jays could experience a rash of injuries at any time, but their roster is more intact than the teams they’re chasing.
In a remarkably short span, Toronto has gone from a team on the outer fringe of the race to one of its top contenders. Every part of this club is functioning at a high level, they’re as complete as they’ve been all season, and the schedule ahead is ripe with opportunity. Just a week ago, it was far easier to doubt the Blue Jays than believe in them.
For the first time in a long time, the opposite is true.
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