Berríos' rocky outing shrinks Blue Jays' WC lead

September 23rd, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Blue Jays aren’t going to make this simple, are they?

Just as Toronto was starting to open up a gap in the American League Wild Card race, and just as José Berríos looked to be turning a corner at the best possible time, each took a step back Thursday night at Tropicana Field with a 10-5 loss to the Rays.

“It was a tough night for him, and I think he’ll tell you the same,” interim manager John Schneider said of Berríos, who allowed six runs in two innings. “He had a tough time putting guys away and a lot of foul balls that got his pitch count up. Not ideal, obviously, to get to the bullpen that early. He’s been so good lately, and I think today was just a tough day for him putting hitters away.”

The loss shrinks the Blue Jays’ lead over the Rays to just one game, with the Mariners now trailing 1 1/2 games behind. With the Orioles on the outside looking in, this has turned into a three-team race for seeding and home-field advantage, but these next three games in St. Petersburg take on even more importance when you consider potential tiebreakers. There will be no “Game 163” in 2022.

Blue Jays tiebreaker scenarios:
• If two teams are tied, their head-to-head record breaks the tie. If three are tied, the tie is broken based on their combined winning percentage against the two other clubs.
• Thursday’s loss moves the Blue Jays to 7-9 against the Rays, and they’ll end the season 2-5 against the Mariners, making tiebreakers something the Blue Jays want to avoid.
• Read the full tiebreaker rules here.
New MLB postseason format, explained

Managing the push for seeding or home-field advantage late in September is a fine balance. Would a club prefer to line up its rotation perfectly and accept lower odds of having the home-field edge, or would it prefer to keep its foot on the gas and handle the first round of the postseason when it gets there?

Asked Thursday if the Blue Jays would turn to ace Alek Manoah on the final day of the season in Baltimore if home-field advantage were still on the line, Schneider left little doubt.

“Absolutely,” he said.

It’s understandable, given that the full best-of-three Wild Card Series will be played at the home team’s stadium. This hasn’t made much of a difference for the Blue Jays in 2022, though, with a record of 43-32 at home and 41-34 on the road. Those games weren’t played in front of postseason crowds, though, and it’s difficult to quantify what a sold-out Rogers Centre -- like you saw back in ‘15 and ‘16 -- could do for a club that tends to feed off that energy.

“Home field would be great,” Schneider added. “I think there would be nothing better than playing in front of our fans in the postseason. After the last couple of years when we haven’t been there, and with what the world and country has been through. That would definitely be reasonable to want to play that series at home, knowing that we have three really good other starters.”

If that’s the case, though, how does Berríos fit in? The right-hander was coming off three solid outings to open September, bringing about legitimate optimism that he was returning to the form that earned him a seven-year, $131 million extension this past offseason, but these glimpses of hope have often been followed by a start like Thursday’s, when he needed 74 pitches to get through just two innings. It was a strange outing where not all of the damage was done on hard contact, but Berríos has now allowed five earned runs or more in eight of his 30 starts this season.

“I want to come back and finish my last two outings stronger,” Berríos said. “I know we are in the last stretch. I want to help my team to make that happen. I just want to turn the page from tonight and keep moving forward.”

His three prior starts offer the blueprint to do just that, and some postseason heroics could quickly erase a disappointing regular season, but the Blue Jays will need to see that soon. Thursday’s loss asked six innings from Toronto’s bullpen, which it will likely need to lean on again Friday behind Mitch White.

With home-field advantage a priority, though, these next three days are the biggest to date for the Blue Jays. Tiebreakers are stacked against them, but Toronto still controls its own fate in a Wild Card race that seems destined to come down to the final day.