Blue Jays feed off sweep ahead of Wild Card battle

September 4th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- Now comes the fun part.

With a sweep of the Pirates at PNC Park this weekend, the Blue Jays did what they were supposed to do. In a postseason race, anything less than a sweep against one of baseball’s cellar dwellers would have been a disappointment. Coming off Sunday’s 4-3 win, though, the Blue Jays are heading into a stretch of games circled in bright red.

It begins Monday in Baltimore with a doubleheader against an O's team that’s become one of the stories of the season in Major League Baseball. The young Orioles, suddenly stacked with top prospects, are chasing the Blue Jays for the final AL Wild Card spot (the Rays and Mariners hold on to the top two) -- Baltimore is just 2.5 games behind Toronto. The two AL East foes will need to get used to each other, too.

After this four-game series in Baltimore, the Blue Jays host the Orioles in Toronto from Sept. 16-18, then head back to Camden Yards to close out the season from Oct. 3-5. Given how this past month has gone, it’s likely the Blue Jays arrive in Baltimore with their suitcases packed for the postseason, but no clue which city they’ll be flying to in the three days to follow.

In the middle of these 10 games against the Orioles, the Blue Jays also face the Rays -- a club that's always been a challenge for them -- eight more times. Every game and every out will swing the Wild Card standings. It’s exactly what you want as a fan, player, beer vendor or manager.

“This is the best. This is what you do this for. This is why I started coaching at 28,” interim manager John Schneider said. “This is what you dream of. You want to be playing meaningful games at the highest level with a group you love being around.”

Toronto’s taste of the postseason in the shortened 2020 season helps. The young core, led by and , dipped their toes, then learned just how quickly the thrill of the postseason can come crumbling down.

It happened again on the final day of the 2021 season, when the Blue Jays missed the playoffs by one game, their fate sealed when a Rafael Devers home run helped the Red Sox beat the Nationals and in turn eliminated Toronto. Thousands of fans had stayed inside Rogers Centre to watch on the big screen, until the air was suddenly sucked out of the building.

This is still fresh in the Blue Jays’ minds. Knowing that 162 games of work can be ended in a split second means everything about these coming weeks will be heightened. It’s easy for anxiety to come with this, but Schneider expects the opposite.

“Embrace it. Enjoy it. Know that you’ve put yourself in a position to be chased,” Schneider said. “It’s weird with the amount of teams who are so close, it’s not even worth looking at the scoreboard every night to see what other teams did. We’re all going to be playing against one another here sooner or later. It’s about enjoying these moments and embracing the fact that this is why you play.”

The Blue Jays will benefit now from having players like , who knows postseason success well, and , who comes from the Dodgers' playoff culture.

“Good teams take care of business, right?” Stripling said after giving the Blue Jays six innings of three-run ball. “We let one go there at home against the Cubs. You can’t get ahead of yourself or think about the series that’s next, so you’ve got to take care of the business and game at hand. We could have got a sweep there at home, but then we came here and swept a Pittsburgh team that’s scuffling. We should take care of business and we did.”

You’re also seeing younger players growing within these moments, like closer , who struck out three Pirates to seal the win with a runner standing on third base the entire time. Schneider called him an “animal” after the win, and the calm, cool Canadian echoed his teammates’ sentiments.

“This was big. Every game feels like a playoff game and a must-win,” Romano said. “We’ve got Baltimore breathing down our necks and Tampa’s winning, so it’s huge. Every game is important and I think you can see that in how we’re playing.”

There are layers to these upcoming series, too. Monday’s series in Baltimore opens with a doubleheader, and there’s another one waiting next week against the Rays. It won’t be easy, and the Blue Jays don’t tend to make things easy on themselves at the best of times, but these next few weeks are what players dream of from the moment they pull into the parking lot on Day 1 of Spring Training.