Somehow, some way, the Toronto Blue Jays are still in the hunt for a wild card playoff spot.
As of Tuesday, the Jays sat 3.5 games back of the Los Angeles Angels for that final post-season slot. However, there are six other teams, including two in their division (Tampa and Baltimore) between them and a third trip to the playoffs.
After winning their third in a row, a narrow 2-1 victory against the Rays Monday night, the cautious optimism may give way to unbridled enthusiasm.
But, Toronto fans ought to know that the road is uphill with 44 games left to go. Of those contests, 21 are at home, where they have a 32-28 mark. On the road, they are sub-.500 at 25-33 with 23 games to take place away from the friendly confines of the Rogers Center.
With so little time left, there are reasons for hope and as many for pessimism. Here are five reasons they can sneak into the big dance and five that give them no hope at all. Here they are, starting with five reasons why.
10. Josh Donaldson Stays Smoking Hot
The 2015 AL MVP played a big part in two straight trips to the post-season and with a recent resurgence after injury and a slow start, he is playing a big role again. He has been smoking hot in August, ripping six of his 17 homers and driving in 16 of his 47 runs on the season. On Monday night he blasted a two-run homer to give his team all the offence it needed in a 2-1 win over the visiting Rays. At the plate he has elevated a pedestrian .243 average at the end of July to .258, based on 14 hits in 41 at bats for a .341 August mark. Donaldson has also drawn 11 walks and added two doubles to his torrid August pace. Defensively he has come up with some gems, including a nice diving grab and a throw from his knees to nab a runner recently, which is what the Jays faithful have come to expect from him during stretch drives.
9. Young Pitchers Continue To Thrive
With Francisco Liriano gone at the trade deadline and Aaron Sanchez on the shelf again, Jays brass had to dig deep into the minors to find suitable replacements. Now, it’s too early to tell, but both rookie Chris Rowley and journeyman Nick Tepesch have had solid recent starts. Rowley, who interestingly went to West Point, pitched 5.1 innings of strong ball in a 7-2 win over Pittsburgh on Aug. 12, surrendering just five hits, a walk and an earned run while fanning three to get his first major league victory. Tepesch, picked up from Minnesota in July, lost his first start for Toronto against the Yankees last week, but rebounded with a nice effort against Tampa Bay on Monday, going six strong and allowing just four hits and an earned run to get his first “W” of 2017.
8. John Gibbons Manages Beat Up Roster Effectively
With so many players on the DL for varying lengths of time, beleaguered manager John Gibbons has had to fill key holes with bench players and minor league call-ups. Behind the plate he’s employing AAA call-up Raffy Lopez in the absence of Russ Martin (10-day DL) and Miguel Montero (10-day DL). Lopez is tasked with handling an equally beat up pitching staff and has done a decent job of it so far. In the middle infield, there is no Troy Tulowitzki at short (done for the season) or Devon Travis at second (also likely done), forcing him to utilize a rotation of Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney and Rob Refsnyder. They have plugged those huge gaps to varying degrees of success. And Gibbons’ pitching staff has been a dog’s breakfast too, with two relatively green starters and two inexperienced relievers (Matt Dermody and Tim Mayza) drawing in as well. It will be up to Gibby to continue to juggle well if his team has any hope at all.
7. Team Defence Doesn’t Continue To Give Extra Outs
Without Troy Tulowitzki at short and Russ Martin behind the plate and defensively suspect Steve Pearce manning left field and Jose Bautista right, the Jays look a little AAA defensively at times. As of Tuesday, Toronto was 17th in baseball in team defence, with 70 errors in and a .984 fielding percentage in 118 games. They were also middle of the pack in assists, sitting 12th with 1,150. The team was downright sloppy from the get-go, including that horrible April. The bright lights so far this season have been Justin Smoak at first (.999 fielding percentage) and Kevin Pillar in center (.996). Bautista, though, has slipped measurably in right and owns a -1.4 DWAR and ditto part-time OF Ezequiel Carrera, who is -1.3. Rob Refsnyder has looked horrible at times too and has already made three errors in just nine games. The Jays need all hands on deck when the other team is at the plate if they are to survive August and September.
6. The Team Keeps Up The Good Work At Home
A look at the August-September home schedule sees some key match-ups on the horizon, including this week’s four-game set with Tampa (Jays won the first game 2-1 on Monday). They are 5-2 on this current 10-game home stand with huge series victories over Pittsburgh and the Yankees to start it. They will also entertain Minnesota for three (who they haven’t played yet) and then Boston for three more (3-7 collective mark against the Red Sox) to end the month of August. In September, they get Detroit and then Baltimore at home starting on Sept. 8. They are chasing the Orioles too and own a weak 3-9 record against their foes. Toronto is also 1-2 against the Tigers, which they hope to turn around at home. Their final homestand sees a wild card chasing Kansas City come to town, followed by one last visit by the Evil Empire for three games. Their mark against the Royals is 1-2 and they have actually owned the Yanks with a 7-6 mark head-to-head. Fingers crossed.
5. Blue Jays Bullpen Runs Out Of Gas
And now for five reasons the Jays will watch the playoffs in the comfort of their living rooms. One would be a rickety bullpen being forced to toss too many innings over the remaining 44 games. On the plus side, Roberto Osuna has rebounded nicely from early season jitters, as well as shaking off the odd blown save to record a second straight 30 or more save season (he got his 30th Monday night). Middle relievers Danny Barnes, Ryan Tepera and Aaron Loup have all had varying degrees of success, which is hopeful sign. But, the revolving door in the bullpen has seen far too many audition for work and just as many get released or sent back to AAA. J.P. Howell has been a disaster (7.47 ERA) and Joe Biagini is in the minors after a good 2016 season. Matt Dermody is still TBD in effectiveness, as will AAA call-up Tim Mayza, who will fill the spot vacated by the departed Dominic Leone, who is on the bereavement list. Keeping the arms fresh in the ‘pen is job one, but they could sputter down the stretch.
4. Toronto Gets Stomped On The Road
Of the Jays remaining 23 road games, 15 are against AL East foes. Which isn’t a good sign, since their overall road record is 25-33. After a visit to Chicago to play the defending champion Cubs this weekend, the Jays will hopefully not limp into a three-game series with Tampa, where they have been pretty much horrible at the Trop (they are 3-4 in Tampa and 7-6 overall against the Rays as of Tuesday). September doesn’t get any easier and good indicator of their chances could be a seven-game road trip to Baltimore and Boston starting Aug. 31. With Toronto chasing the Orioles (at least as of Tuesday, which could change), winning at least two out of four at Camden Yards is imperative. They are 1-4 in Baltimore and 3-9 overall against the O’s. A 2-2 mark at Fenway bodes well and that early September set in Boston may be huge. They have four in Minnesota in the middle of the month, and wrap things up by heading to Boston and New York for their final six games. The Jays are 3-3 as of Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. It’s going to be a rough ride.
3. They Continue To Hit Into Too Many Double Plays
Hand in hand with bringing in runners in scoring position is how many times a team grounds into double plays. The Jays are a major league worst in that department, with 124. This is fully 14 times more than Houston and nearly double that of leaders Arizona, who have grounded into just 67 this season. The Jays haven’t been bad in leaving runners in scoring position this season, sitting seventh in average RISP with 3.23 per game. However, with all those double plays, they have taken themselves out of far too many big innings. And two of the worst culprits are middle-of-the-line-up RBI guys Kendrys Morales and Jose Bautista. Morales is tied for the most GIDP in the AL with 18 and Bautista is tied five others for 12th worst with 15. This trend needs to reverse itself heading into the stretch drive.
2. Russell Martin and Aaron Sanchez Don’t Return From DL
No offence to catcher Raffy Lopez and plugged-in starters Chris Rowley and Nick Tepesch, but if Russell Martin and starter Aaron Sanchez can’t find their way back into the line-up, it’s curtains for the Jays. For the Blue Jays to have success down the stretch and maybe even into the playoffs, they need Martin handling the staff and providing the odd big hit and Sanchez providing ace-type starts (like he did in 2016). Yet, Sanchez has no timetable for return, with blister problems on the index finger of his throwing hand giving him fits all season and limiting him to just eight starts, the last on July 19. Martin, who has played in 81 games this season and hit .223 (12 HR, 27 RBI), went down during a loss to Pittsburgh last Friday with an oblique strain. He is on the 10-day DL and with greenhorn Lopez handling the duties, he can’t come back soon enough.
1. Teams The Jays Are Chasing Don’t Fold
In all likelihood, a perfect storm of events has to happen for the Blue Jays to leapfrog the six teams sitting between them and a wild card spot. They were 57-61 after play Monday and sitting 3.5 games back of the Los Angeles Angels, who hold that spot with a 61-58 record. Caught in the middle are: Texas (3.0 games back), Tampa Bay (2.5), Seattle (2.5), Baltimore (2.0), Kansas City (0.5) and Minnesota (0.5). Of those six, the Twins have been the hottest team, recently, forging a 8-2 record to position themselves well. Toronto, Texas and Baltimore are next, all with 6-4 marks. Seattle has slid recently, losing five in a row as part of a 4-6 record, while Kansas City has won three in a row to go 4-6. Only the Rays have played awfully, losing four in a row during a 2-8 slide. Toronto can do themselves a solid and win the majority of their remaining games (23) against every one of those teams in August and September, except for Seattle and Texas. However, it’s what those teams do when they’re not playing Toronto that is problematic. Control of their own destiny isn’t exactly in the Blue Jays’ hands.