Blue Jays head west to face Twins in best-of-three series
Three playoff teams emerge from powerful AL East
Blue Jays’ manager John Schneider continues to deny the identity of the first-round playoff opponent ever mattered, or that he cares about the subsequent route that his team is now locked into. But get real! Anyone with a feel for the recent history of the club and its struggles at Tropicana Field, coupled with this season’s dominance by the young, talented O’s, would be lying. This would have been their choice.
The Jays now face the Twins in a three-game set, with Game 1 on Tuesday. Win that and they move on to play the Astros in a best-of-five series that would open at Minute Maid Park. That Central Time Zone route to baseball’s Final 4 has to be much preferred within that clubhouse to the option of flying to Tampa to play at the Trop, followed by a the Division Series vs. the Orioles at Camden Yards.
“The confidence has been so high in the clubhouse among the guys and the staff that we really feel we just needed to get in,” Schneider said. “Getting there was hard. This team is built for the playoffs between pitching, defence and offence. It’s a unique feel, but the getting there was hard. Now that we’re there, it does not matter who we’re playing, we feel really confident.”
On Sunday, the Jays finished the regular season’s 162-game marathon with a 12-8 loss to the Rays at Rogers Centre. Then, belatedly, they champagne-celebrated and saluted the wildcard they had clinched late on Saturday night when the Rangers beat and thus eliminated the Mariners. The Sunday evening clubhouse dance party seemed awkward at the start, but sincere by the finish, when it included fans in the stands.
“This is why you play,” Schneider said of the disco vibes and fraternal love that eventually spilled out onto the field for photos and where several hundred fans were waiting to acknowledge their baseball heroes.
“I love the guys getting to feel that. This is what the team is about. You’re happy for all of them, not just the veterans, but the young guys like Cam Eden and Davis Schneider. You’re happy for the guys we’ve acquired in trade like Jordan Hicks and Genesis Cabrera. You’re happy for all those guys to have this experience with this group. It‘s awesome.”
The best thing for the Jays about having clinched a playoff spot the night before is that they were able to save ace righthander Kevin Gausman and now slot him on to Game 1 on Tuesday. Behind him in the rotation will likely be righthanders Chris Bassitt and Jose Berrios but in what order we cannot be sure.
A potential Game 3, if the series gets that far, will be rewarded with a trip to Houston. The intriguing name for the Jays is Berrios, who broke in with the Twins and was their Pitcher-of-the-Year four times. He was, of course, traded to the Jays at the deadline in 2021. The 29-year-old had a horrible first full season under a new multi-year pact in 2022, but bounced back in ’23.
With those three being the likely starters, it allows for lefthander Yusei Kikuchi to likely be moved to the bullpen where he was effective, in spurts, late in the second half of 2022. With extra-inning rules returning for the playoffs, absent the ghost runner to start every extra frame at second base and having a reliever with the ability to go multiple innings is essential. The three-game sprint in the Wildcard round, also, likely leaves lefty Hyun Jin Ryu without a role. There is a strong possibility he is left off the 26-man roster. The rosters can be re-set every series.
Back to the champagne party, it was interesting to see times when the manager entered and exited the dugout during the on-field portion. With his tee-shirt soaked and holding a bottle of champagne aloft, the crowd erupted each time he acknowledged them. But how many of those fans celebrating with him were among those frustrated by the Jays’ priorities of pitching and defence, the same fans who have been taking their gripes to social media calling for the manager’s head.
“Baseball is hard, this division is hard,” Schneider said in response to the question of whether he feels they had underachieved. “I think getting (to the playoffs) takes a lot of the weight off the players’ shoulders. In spring training there were very high expectations. People can say we either met them or fell short, but the fact is that we are in.
“The (players) were looking forward to it because of how good they are. But you never know, going into a year. Injuries happen. Performance happens. You want to just get in. It’s been proven it doesn’t matter what seed you are, it depends on how you’re playing at the time. They don’t think about seeds, they think about their confidence in themselves.”
The marathon is over and the October sprint begins on Tuesday at Target Field.