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2019 brings hope for Blue Jays' future

Youth steps up in Smoak's likely farewell season with Toronto
@KeeganMatheson
September 29, 2019

TORONTO -- With the doors closing on the Blue Jays’ 67-95 season after Sunday’s 8-3 win over the Rays at Rogers Centre, first-year manager Charlie Montoyo is looking back -- and ahead -- the way he knows best. Montoyo is optimistic about what’s to come and happy, he says, with

TORONTO -- With the doors closing on the Blue Jays’ 67-95 season after Sunday’s 8-3 win over the Rays at Rogers Centre, first-year manager Charlie Montoyo is looking back -- and ahead -- the way he knows best.

Montoyo is optimistic about what’s to come and happy, he says, with how he and his new coaching staff stayed positive throughout the season on a team that went through highs, lows and plenty of development. He says the same for his players, too, many of whom represent the young core that the Blue Jays hope will lead the next wave of playoff contention.

Box score

Over the final days of the season, Montoyo has repeatedly pointed back to a stretch from Sept. 10-15, when the Blue Jays took two of three from both the Red Sox and Yankees at home. There’s a long way between 67 wins and playoff contention, but Montoyo is confident that he’s working with a young, talented core that also has some guts.

“I learned that they’re not afraid to play against the best teams. They don’t get intimidated playing in Boston or Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium,” Montoyo said. “They played good, and they were not intimidated. That’s big.”

Sunday also closed the door, in all likelihood, on Justin Smoak’s time in Toronto with a moment that showed Montoyo’s respect for the 32-year-old first baseman and pending free agent.

Montoyo has called Smoak one of his favourite players that he has ever had an opportunity to manage, and that’s coming from a baseball man who has been around the block a time or two. When Smoak launched his second double of the game in the bottom of the seventh inning, Montoyo removed him for a pinch-runner, earning Smoak a standing ovation from the crowd as his teammates spilled out of the dugout to meet him on the edge of the field.

“I couldn’t write that moment any better, but you did it,” Montoyo said to Smoak after the game.

In classic Smoak fashion, he opted for a deadpan jab at himself, wondering why his teammates were leaving the dugout for “a .200 hitter.” In most ways this was, somehow, another game to him.

“A couple doubles, a couple RBIs,” Smoak said, reviewing the day. “For me, personally, it felt weird to get a couple knocks in a game. It was good. A good way to finish it off.”

Once a top prospect who never quite reached his potential in Texas and Seattle, Smoak thrived in Toronto over five seasons. The 2017 season saw Smoak break out for 38 home runs and his first career All-Star appearance. This season, he quietly embraced a mentorship role and led by example. His 117 home runs with the organization rank him 14th all-time.

Before the game and after, Smoak signed piles of jerseys and balls for his teammates, all by their request. It was another obvious sign of how deeply the next generation of Blue Jays respects Smoak, even if he’s quick to deflect praise.

“Ever since the Trade Deadline last year, I felt like I was one of the guys,” Smoak said. “Next thing you know, I was the old guy. It was different, but I felt like I got better at being that guy for them when they needed me to be that guy. It wasn’t all about me at that point, it was more about what I could do to help. That’s what I tried to do.”

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