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Youthful Blue Jays already looking forward

@KeeganMatheson
October 1, 2020

When the Rays punched the gas and pulled away in Game 2 to sweep the American League Wild Card Series on Wednesday, the Blue Jays learned just how quickly and unexpectedly these things can fall apart. On such a young roster, this was the first taste of the postseason for

When the Rays punched the gas and pulled away in Game 2 to sweep the American League Wild Card Series on Wednesday, the Blue Jays learned just how quickly and unexpectedly these things can fall apart.

On such a young roster, this was the first taste of the postseason for many players. That experience doesn’t typically come as a No. 8 seed, or in an empty Tropicana Field filled with cardboard cutouts of fans and piped-in crowd noise, but the weight of the moment was much the same. Now, looking back after the offseason’s sudden arrival, Toronto will work to turn the losses into lessons.

Some of those lessons will be basic. Just as this young roster had to adjust to the bright lights of the Major Leagues, it now knows how much brighter those lights shine -- and how much more important each small play is -- when October rolls around.

"Just being in the playoffs and feeling how you feel when you’re in these games, I think that’s just the No. 1 lesson,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “They know they’re good enough now where they can compete with everybody, but when you get to this point, it’s a different story.”

One of the biggest lessons the Blue Jays will take from this is that mistakes made on a Tuesday night in the regular season are far different than those made in the postseason. Toronto’s season was filled with fundamental defensive errors and baserunning blunders, but somehow, it kept finding ways to win games despite making a handful of head-scratching plays. That’s not how it works in the postseason.

With aces on the mound, stacked bullpens following them and managers fighting for every edge they can find, those mistakes change games. Bo Bichette learned that the hard way, as one of his two errors in Game 2 extended the second inning and allowed Hunter Renfroe to launch the grand slam that eventually sealed Toronto’s fate. When Bichette compares his club to the Rays, that’s the difference he sees.

“I don’t see a big gap. We believe that we’re just as talented as them, but they do everything really, really well,” Bichette said. “They don’t make mistakes. They don’t beat themselves. With my error in the second inning, that put us behind the eight ball pretty early and pretty big. That’s something they don’t do, and that’s something they capitalize on.”

While the development of this young core is the most important factor in the Blue Jays’ long-term success, the veterans of this club saw a group of players on the cusp of something.

Joe Panik has been there and done that, winning a World Series ring with the Giants and witnessing all-time great performances on the biggest stage. He was a resource for the young infielders around him this season, and from searching for a home stadium to playing out of the club's Triple-A park in Buffalo, N.Y., and reaching the postseason, this isn’t a year he’ll forget.

“What this group has accomplished is something very special,” Panik said. “Maybe some people outside of the clubhouse might see it as World Series or bust, but the fact that this group was able to band together in a short period of time with some of the things we had to deal with is something very special and something that I’ll never forget. There’s nothing that compares to winning a World Series, but I will say that this season has been very special, no matter what."

After following up their 67-95 season in 2019 with a 32-28 record this year, much of the focus will be on how the Blue Jays attack their offseason. Questions of payroll will be front and center, as the club could be in position to be aggressive while its young core is still in its pre-arbitration years, and the trade market will be explored thoroughly.

This team needs some additions, especially now that it has reached the point where it can make “the jump.” No move will be as important, though, as pieces of this young core reaching their star potential.

“We understand that we’re talented, and something great about us is that we never give up,” Bichette said. “We’re going to take that into next year and continue to try to get better. Tighten up the little things, and tomorrow we’ll all start looking forward to getting better.”

Keegan Matheson is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.