On September 2 of last year, the Blue Jays sat on the sidelines of the playoff discussion. With 30 games to play, they were five games behind a wild-card spot, with the A’s, Mariners and Red Sox between them and October.
We all know how that story ended. A 21-9 record down the stretch put them ahead of both AL West teams and as many as 91 wins, but it wasn’t good enough. A short win.
This year, the exact teams and standings are different, but the final chase remains the same. With 30 games remaining, the Blue Jays will decide their fate.
“We’re approaching September with our destiny in our control,” general manager Ross Atkins said last week. “A lot of games against teams that were competing for these final spots, I feel like we’re going to warm up and have a hot run.”
If you ask playoff odds, the Blue Jays are in great shape. After sweeping the Pirates in three games, Toronto sits down with a 94.6% chance of earning a playoff spot, according to FanGraphs. They even have a 9.6% chance in the division and the third-best chance to win the American League World Series.
But we’re also at the point in the season where playoff odds and Pythagoras’ records don’t mean much anymore. With so few games remaining, one good or bad stretch will determine an entire campaign. They don’t have to be pretty, like Pittsburgh’s sweep of Toronto, but the only thing that matters this time of year is wins.
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The Baltimore Orioles sit with a 7.8% chance of making the postseason, but they’re also a good week away from getting in the driver’s seat in October. The O’s are 2.5 games behind Toronto for the final AL playoff spot, and the Blue Jays will have ample opportunity to build that gap themselves. Of Toronto’s remaining 30 games, 10 are against the Orioles, giving both bird squads a chance to take care of business. That business starts on Monday. Toronto also has nine games remaining against Tampa Bay, the only AL playoff team with a tougher remaining schedule than the Blue Jays.
One advantage the Blue Jays have, at least over the Orioles, is that this playoff push is nothing new, with many players versed in significant September baseball. Currently, 17 of Toronto’s 28-man roster they’re returning players from last year’s team, a group that’s painfully aware of the importance of each game and have added other key veterans who have led successful runs in September before.
Matt Chapman was an integral part of the A’s back-to-back Wild Card drives in 2018 and 2019, George Springer and Jackie Bradley Jr. have clinched plenty of playoff berths, and Kevin Gausman was part of some tense September runs early in his career. race.
Helping push the Orioles into the wild-card game in 2016 and a key figure in the Dodgers’ battle against the Giants late last season, Gausman loves this time of year, he said. Besides him liking the return of football and the cooler weather, he finds himself playing his best baseball when the games matter most. With a 3.93 career ERA, Gausman drops to 3.52 in September while posting his highest K/9 of any month and lowest OPS of his opponents.
“You want to play meaningful games at the end of the year,” Gausman said. “But it’s definitely a mental grind when that’s the case.”
Toronto could use a few other players to follow Gausman’s path and improve their games this month. The Blue Jays have yet to play their best baseball this year, general manager Ross Atkins said, and if Toronto finds another level of production down the stretch, or even better consistency, they will surely clinch a playoff spot.
More than half of the Blue Jays roster knows what it means to fall short this time of year. They have 30 games to get on the other side of losing in 2022. It’s where any team wants to be this time of year, but now is the time to execute.
“It’s much more exciting when you’re inside,” Gausman said.