Less than one-quarter of the shortened baseball season remains and the Toronto Blue Jays are just ahead of the New York Yankees, have a chance at securing home playoff dates and are in the mix of contenders.
It makes the upcoming three-game series at Yankee Stadium all the more important.
The Blue Jays are brimming with confidence ahead of Tuesday night’s opener against their American League East division rivals. Toronto (26-20) has won or split its last nine series and is a season-high six games over .500.
Not bad for a young team with modest expectations this season.
“We go out there and play every day hard,” said Blue Jays infielder Santiago Espinal. “We’re trying to get wins, we’re trying to go to the playoffs, we’re trying to win a World Series. Everyone here is doing their job.
“That’s our main thing: to maintain focus and to get a W every day.”
The Yankees have sputtered at times but are currently riding a five-game winning streak. New York dropped two of three against Toronto last week in Buffalo, N.Y., and the teams will play four more times next week at Sahlen Field.
Under the new 2020 playoff structure, the top eight teams in each league will reach the post-season. Entering Monday’s games, Toronto is seeded fifth while New York is tied for seventh with Cleveland (both 26-21), well ahead of No. 9 Seattle (21-25).
Barring a collapse by first-place Tampa Bay in the East, the Blue Jays and Yankees are set to battle for second spot and a seeding between fourth and sixth in the AL. A third-place finish in the division would likely result in a seventh or eighth seeding and a tougher playoff matchup against a top-two seed.
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said he feels his club is set to peak at the right time.
“It comes back to the mental toughness of this team,” he said. “Wanting to win, letting go of the tough games and being ready for the next day. We’ve done a great job with that and that’s the reason why we’ve done so well in my opinion.”
Backup players have risen to the challenge for Toronto when starters went down with injuries. The pitching staff has been solid and the bullpen has overachieved.
Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette and closer Ken Giles recently returned from injury layoffs and additional reinforcements could be coming. Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez and pitchers Nate Pearson and Matt Shoemaker have all made strides and could be back before the season finale Sept. 27.
“Credit to this team because every time somebody gets hurt, somebody else picks the next guy up,” Montoyo said. “That doesn’t happen very often. That’s the reason we’re here right now is because guys have done that. They’ve picked each other up.”
The Yankees, meanwhile, could soon get injured sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton back in the lineup. Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu have delivered in their absence but players like Gary Sanchez and Brett Gardner have struggled.
Toronto has risen to 11th in the latest MLB.com power rankings, two spots below the Yankees. The website’s first list of the season had New York at No. 2 and the Blue Jays a distant 21st.
According to FanGraphs, the Blue Jays are a virtual lock to make the playoffs at 98.2 per cent. Toronto has a 36.7-per cent chance of finishing second in the division and a 1.6-per cent chance of winning the World Series
The Blue Jays are in an enviable position. The team was built to contend over the coming seasons, not necessarily this 60-game campaign.
A loss in the new best-of-three first round wouldn’t be the end of the world. Young players like Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., would benefit greatly from meaningful September games and valuable playoff reps.
Toronto essentially has nothing to lose in the 2020 post-season and that should give its opposition cause for concern.
The Yankees, meanwhile, are in win-now mode. Anything less than a deep playoff run for this expensive team would be considered a disappointment.
However, that subject is a conversation for later this month. Right now, the focus is on this big series in the Bronx.
Both teams have slated right-handers to make starts. New York’s Deivi Garcia will get the nod Tuesday ahead of Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka.
The Blue Jays have lined up Taijuan Walker and Tanner Roark but haven’t named a starter for Thursday’s finale.
Notes: Outfielder Billy McKinney was claimed off outright waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday afternoon. The Blue Jays designated him for assignment last Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press