The energy in Toronto is never better than when a sports team is in the playoffs. There’s a palpable excitement in the air, a new small talk topic just dropped, and you might even get to watch some TV at work. This week, as we savour the last warm days of the year, our very own Toronto Blue Jays have a date with destiny a.k.a. the Minnesota Twins in the first-round wild card series. You may not know it, but the Jays’ spot in the playoffs was never guaranteed, and the road to the playoffs has been frustrating for many fans. Though I am merely a casual baseball fan, I am desperately looking for something to root for. I’ve consulted three people in my life who are rabid about baseball—my father, a friend Cam, and an inside source at the Jays—to help me hop on the bandwagon. Together, we’ve built a cheat sheet for you to join me.
The Season So Far…
It would be a lie to say that this season has gone well, with many Jays fans disappointed and frustrated with how things have shaken out. After a total routing by the Seattle Mariners in the wild card series last year, the Jays made a lot of moves in the off-season, trading away major offensive players like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez in favour of stronger pitching and better defense.
The question remains whether this has paid off. Though the Jays have been great defensively (due in part to the addition of three-time Golden Glove Award winner Kevin Kiermaier), the ongoing offensive struggles have soured what should have been an exceptional season. On paper, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is still batting above average when compared to the rest of the league, he has not delivered on the promise of his potential, having fewer runs and hits than in the previous two seasons.
Meanwhile, George Springer has generally struggled, though the playoff veteran has turned things around in September to make the final push for the last wild card spot. Hits abound, but not when it counts, meaning that this season has been rife with squandered opportunities that can’t really be blamed on anything other than weak performances. With the 5th best record in the American League, the Jays haven’t totally tanked.
The pitching issues that plagued the team early on are resolved, most everyone has returned from injury looking great, and the Jays have been at the top of their defensive game.
Fans want to know: can the Jays turn this lackluster season around and make a deep playoff run? That journey begins with the Twins this afternoon.
Wild Card Series?
Barring the do-or-die trials of the NFL, the barrier to entry for the MLB playoffs is incredibly high compared to that of the NHL or the NBA. While the top two teams in each division advance, the rest compete in a wild card series where the third seed plays the sixth and the fourth seed plays the fifth, competing to win the best of three games. The Jays (sixth) are playing the Minnesota Twins (third) in Minnesota for all (potentially) three games. Though their regular season was turbulent at best, the Jays have a 3-3 record against the Twins and have consistently played better away than at home, so it’s not as though the odds are stacked against them.
Past Playoff Performances
Though the Jays have consistently made the wild card series in three of the last four seasons, they haven’t exactly succeeded there either. Most notably, the last time the Jays won a playoff game was in 2016. They missed the playoffs by a single game in 2021, with what was arguably the best version of the current team. Last year, we hosted the Seattle Mariners here in Toronto, only to lose in two straight: we dropped the first game after a phenomenal Seattle pitching performance and in the second, we choked, losing a 6-run lead to boot us out of contention. In this upcoming wild card series, we’re looking to break this trend.
Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
One of the Jays’ perennial issues this past season was starting pitching. With All-Star Alek Manoah down with the worst case of the yips I have ever witnessed, other pitchers needed to step up to fill in the gaps. Surprisingly, they have. I say surprisingly because both José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi, two pitchers who have literally and figuratively stepped up to the plate, had exceptionally bad seasons last year. Along with Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt, they’ve rounded out our starting pitching lineup. Between the Jays’ great pitching staff and the lack of injuries among this core four, we have turned an abysmal pitching season into a stable one, with Berríos, Gausman, Kikuchi, and Bassitt all pitching a full season. The Blue Jays have confirmed that Gausman will start Game 1, Berríos will start Game 2, and Bassitt will start Game 3, if necessary. Closing is a different story, and since Jordan Romano has struggled as of late, expect Jordan Hicks to take over instead.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) October 3, 2023
Hitting When It Counts
Obviously pitching and defense matter in the Postseason, but ultimately you can’t win unless you score runs. A major theme that has followed the Jays like a dark cloud during the regular season is their consistent inability to hit successfully with players on base in a position to score. They have grounded on double plays 129 times in the regular season, the most in the American League. Things are looking up, with Bo returning from injury looking great and Springer is expected to turn out another good playoff performance. The ultimate determining factor for this wild card series is whether or not the Blue Jays can overcome the issue that’s been weighing them down all season: they desperately need to score.
Though this hasn’t been an injury-free season, it hasn’t hugely impacted the Jays either. Bo has returned to typical Bo form, and Brandon Belt recovered from his back problems just in time to deliver the patience he is known for and is much needed. Danny Jansen is the only player that remains out (broken finger), and likely will not make his return unless the Jays are in contention for the World Series.
Twins Scouting Report
The Minnesota Twins booked their ticket to the playoffs largely by winning what is perhaps the worst division in the MLB, playing well against terrible teams while struggling against competitive teams. Their situation is similar to the Jays’: middling offense paired with great pitching. They have some of the highest velocity pitches in the MLB, which some Jays, namely Springer and Matt Chapman, have struggled with. Meanwhile, the Twins have excelled against Gausman’s pitching, being able to thwart his signature splitter. What will decide the game: who can hit it best at the right moment?