Blue Jays' path to playoffs after dropping opener to Sox

July 1st, 2023

TORONTO -- There’s something about the line between Game 81 and 82 of the season that shifts everything into focus.

Whether you talk “halfway” literally or want to wait until the All-Star Game, any sense of “early” has faded from the rearview mirror at this point. The Trade Deadline is about a month away, forcing clubs to decide just how strongly they believe in their own chances, and you can officially start that nervous habit of checking the standings.

Even manager John Schneider, who’d rather not zoom out any further than the series at hand, changes that perspective around this time of year. Ahead of Game 83, Friday’s 5-0 loss to the Red Sox at Rogers Centre, he was asked again if these division games matter “a tick more."

“At this point, this is the first time I’ll say it. A little bit, yes,” Schneider said. “You want to separate yourself a little bit. Every series is important because of the schedule, but when you’re looking at a team that’s in your division and one spot below you, you want to try to separate yourself a little bit and guys are aware of that. I think we’re at a different spot as a group right now with what we’re doing, where we know we can go, sense of urgency, time of schedule, things like that.”

The loss moves the Blue Jays to 0-5 against the Red Sox this season and 7-18 in the division. That’s bad news for any division dreams, of course, but also for potential tiebreakers down the line. The Blue Jays were also held to just three hits Friday as their offense searches for another boost in an inconsistent season.

This is how the road ahead looks:

The division
This ship hasn’t sailed, necessarily, but it’s not tied to the dock anymore, either. The Blue Jays would need to play remarkable baseball and have the Rays come back down to earth, which doesn’t feel likely as they sit 11 games back in the AL East.

Frankly, it’s felt like the Rays’ division to run away with since the second week of the season, even with the Orioles getting better by the week.

“Surprised with how the Rays performed offensively, for sure, to come out of the gates like that,” Schneider said. “I think that if you look at the Yankees, Boston and Baltimore, they’re all going to go through their ups and downs. Hopefully we’re going through an up when they’re going through a down.”

The Wild Card
This is the realistic path for the Blue Jays … again.

“We’re very much in the Wild Card hunt, and I feel very good about the potential of this team playing even better,” general manager Ross Atkins said. “Obviously, you’d love to be at the top of the division and have a better record, but I feel like we’re standing in a solid position.”

The Orioles feel like a lock for one of these AL Wild Card spots, but from there, it’s a crowded table. The Blue Jays currently sit a half game back of Houston for the final Wild Card spot, one back of the Yankees and 4 1/2 games back of the Orioles. The Angels and Red Sox are each less than five games back of the Astros. The exact numbers don’t matter too much just yet, but this is clearly going to be tight to the finish and produce a clogged buyer’s market at the Deadline.

The X-factors
There are a hundred different ways to win a ballgame, but at the root of all this, the Blue Jays need their stars to be the stars. This roster, on paper, is capable of so much more.

They’re starting to see this lately from Guerrero, who hit a monstrous home run Thursday and missed another by inches Friday, only to be robbed by a leaping Jarren Duran.

There have still been some exceptional performances, but more than anything, the Blue Jays need Alek Manoah to eventually return and be part of this solution.

“Probably the two biggest levers we can pull are, offensively, Vladdy, and on the mound, Alek,” Schneider said. “Those guys are a big part of what we hope to do for a long time. When that comes, that’s a big shot in the arm for any team. Hopefully that does come, and hopefully it comes together at the same time.”

That’s what this is all about: having it come together. That focus has been internal, but as you get used to watching the standings in the coming weeks, the Blue Jays have far more hurdles to clear than just their own play.