Blue Jays close in on WC spot despite East loss

September 28th, 2022

TORONTO -- While the champagne sprayed across the field at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night, the Blue Jays were forced to watch as the Yankees were crowned winners of a division they once thought could be theirs.

A Wild Card Series has long been Toronto’s reality, though, and even coming off an uninspiring 5-2 loss, their own champagne will be on ice Wednesday.

With the Orioles’ 13-9 loss to the Red Sox, the Blue Jays’ magic number shrunk to just two. That means a Blue Jays win and an Orioles loss on Wednesday would clinch a Wild Card spot, and while there’s still plenty to be decided in terms of seeding -- with home-field advantage awaiting the top Wild Card earner -- Toronto would finally have its ticket punched.

Watching an opponent celebrate is growing familiar, though, after the Blue Jays watched the Rays clinch the division at Rogers Centre last year.

“It happened to be here in our stadium, and they gave themselves quite a cushion in the first half,” interim manager John Schneider said of the Yankees. “We’re hoping to be in the postseason. We’re hoping to see them. We’re hoping to play deep into October. I don’t think there’s anything to draw from it. You move on to tomorrow and try to win a series.”

Coming off the first two games in this Yankees series, though, we’ve seen why the Blue Jays can be a dark-horse World Series threat on their best day, but also why they haven’t made a run at the division title.

Monday’s 3-2 walk-off win in extra innings was one of the moments of the season, with emphatically declaring that Rogers Centre was his house. Toronto played tight defense, hit all the right notes strategically, went blow-for-blow with the Yankees and won the bullpen battle. It was, in the simplest terms, how a win should look.

That same crispness wasn’t there Tuesday. The Blue Jays managed to keep Aaron Judge in the yard again, further delaying his chase for No. 61, but the Yankees’ star walked four times and scored twice, beating Toronto in a subtler way while even the home crowd offered some boos.

When the Blue Jays had their openings to rally, though, they did themselves no favors. In the bottom of the sixth, hit what looked like an easy double, but just after he slid into second base, he lifted his left foot off the bag and Isiah Kiner-Falefa was there to apply the stealth tag. The next batter, Guerrero, spent some time watching his fly ball up the left-field line before it fell just short of a home run and bounced off the wall. Guerrero kicked it into high gear around first base but was thrown out at second to end the inning.

Schneider felt that Bo needs to be more attentive to avoid that rare play, but he was more assertive in his thoughts on Guerrero.

“Vladdy flat-out needs to run harder. That’s inexcusable,” Schneider said. “I’ll tell him that when I see him later tonight. We’re at the point where every little thing matters. Every 90 feet matters. It should matter every day of the season. That wasn’t the best right there.”

These were controllable plays for the Blue Jays that weren’t capitalized on, which can be so important in the postseason. Tight games in October are decided not just by who makes the big plays, but by who best avoids unforced errors.

José Berríos’ performance fell in line with the game as a whole, showing some fine flashes along the way but not nearly enough. Berríos allowed five runs on nine hits over 5 1/3 innings, bumping his ERA to 5.37, the highest among all qualified MLB starters.

Berríos said after the loss that he felt frustrated, but he also shared that he’s dealing with the weight of his family being in Florida with Hurricane Ian approaching. His family has evacuated to a safer area, but Berríos also has family in Puerto Rico who have been affected, so his focus has been understandably split.

The Blue Jays will close this series out Wednesday night against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, but they should soon have their own opportunity to celebrate and point their momentum toward the postseason.