How the Blue Jays capitalized on a pandemic MLB season to make the playoffs

Thanks to a 5-2 stretch of games to end the season, the 2020 Toronto Blue Jays aren’t among the worst teams to ever make the MLB playoffs.

Major League Baseball allowed eight teams per league into the playoffs for the pandemic-shortened 60-game season, cruising past the previous high of five per league. The Blue Jays took advantage of that format change, getting in as the eighth and final seed in the American League with a 32-28 record.

In the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers got into the dance at 29-31. The Jays aren’t even the worst team to make the playoffs this year.

Still, it’s safe to say these aren’t your 1992-93 World Series Blue Jays or even your 2015-16 bat-flipping Blue Jays.

The 2020 Jays are lucky to be here in the playoffs. But now facing a three-game wild-card series against the No. 1 Tampa Bay Rays beginning Tuesday (5 p.m. ET), anything is possible.

In early March, Toronto boasted a young roster expected to experience some peaks and valleys and fight for a .500 record — an improvement over last year’s 67 wins but not playoff-worthy quite yet.

Then, the pandemic resulted in the loss of 102 regular-season games, the loss of Blue Jays’ home games in Toronto and the addition of six playoff teams. All of a sudden, a .500 record might have been enough for the rebranded “Buffalo” Blue Jays to sneak into the post-season.

They wound up getting into the playoffs at four games over .500 and with room to spare.

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” said manager Charlie Montoyo after clinching last Thursday. “These kids, the ups and downs, the tough games and coming back and winning games after tough losses. We kept believing in ourselves. I’m so proud of this group. I’m the happiest guy right now.”

In the end, the young Blue Jays were fun in a junior hockey sort of way: the talent was obvious and the head-scratching mistakes, sometimes more so.

It was enough for them to play up to the potential many had projected as a plucky team with some exciting young hitters and an ace in Hyun Jin Ryu.

Inconsistent pitching

Ryu, 33, was a legitimate top-end starter for the Jays. The longtime Los Angeles Dodger performed exactly as Toronto hoped when it signed the starter to a four-year, $80-million US deal in the off-season. Ryu had a 2.69 earned run average (ERA) and a 5-2 record over 12 starts. His best start of the regular season was also his last one, a seven-inning gem against the high-flying New York Yankees to help the Jays clinch their playoff spot.

“This is what I expected when I signed with the Blue Jays,” Ryu said through interpreter Bryan Lee after that game. “Even last year, you could see this was a group of young talent. I knew the post-season was a possibility. I like winning, and I came here to win.”

Behind Ryu, the Jays rotation mostly struggled. Top prospect Nate Pearson, 24, was supposed to come in as a solid No. 2 but was uneven before landing on the injured list and will pitch out of the bullpen in the playoffs. Tanner Roark, another off-season signing, sported a ghastly 6.86 ERA over 11 starts.

Hyun Jin Ryu performed as the ace the Blue Jays acquired him to be this season. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Trade deadline addition Taijuan Walker was added from Seattle and solidified the rotation some, as the Jays won five of the 28-year-old’s six starts.

In the bullpen, the Jays lost incumbent closer Ken Giles to elbow surgery, then lost replacement Jordan Romano — a hard-throwing righty from Markham, Ont. — to an arm injury. 

Still, the team managed a 13-10 record in one-run games thanks to Rafael Dolis, who previously hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2013 but earned five saves on a sparkling 1.50 ERA, and Anthony Bass, a journeyman reliever who collected six saves of his own.

There’s no Tom Henke or Duane Ward, but you can’t say the 2020 Jays bullpen hasn’t done its job.

Enticing bats

Offensively, squint and you can see shades of José Bautista in Teoscar Hernández. The right fielder enjoyed good stretches in the past and, perhaps surprisingly, broke out this season thanks to increased discipline at the plate. 

An oblique muscle injury limited the 27-year-old down the stretch, but he’ll be a staple in the playoff lineup after finishing his season with 16 home runs in 50 games.

There’s also the trio of baseball sons in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. The infielders were all key cogs in Toronto’s top-three American League offence. Considering his prospect status, Guerrero, 21, was probably a slight disappointment, but he finished his season strong with hits in six of his final seven games, including two home runs.

“He’s locked in right now,” said Montoyo, following the regular-season finale. “It took him a little bit longer this season, but he’s there now, and it’s great. Going into the playoffs, seeing him swinging the bat the way he is, it’s great for us. We all know that’s what he can do. He feels really good at the plate right now.”

Bichette, 22, was beginning to garner some MVP (most valuable player) buzz before an injury cost nearly half of his season. The young shortstop hasn’t been quite the same since. Biggio, meanwhile, played 59 games and led the Jays in doubles, all while holding down the leadoff spot thanks to his .375 on-base percentage.

As a team, Toronto was Top 10 in baseball in homers and doubles, and middle of the pack in walks. It was a balanced attack, unlike the boom-or-bust 2015 team that relied so heavily on the long ball.

The Jays’ biggest offensive flaw was simply inconsistency: there were some stretches where it seems like no one could hit; they also had a 10-run inning at one point.

Defensive issues lingered throughout the season, and base-running mistakes plagued the Blue Jays through stretches. Those are the type of things playoff teams won’t let you get away with. Remember: Bautista’s bat flip doesn’t happen without three Texas Rangers errors in that bizarre seventh inning.

The 2020 Blue Jays are both fun and flawed. They weren’t supposed to be in the playoffs, but then again they weren’t supposed to play their home games in Buffalo, N.Y.

Evicted from Rogers Centre, Toronto deserves credit for its resolve. There was a 28-game stretch over 27 days at one point, and the Jays went 18-10. The team spent the first three weeks of the season as nomads before settling at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field.

It’s been a strange MLB season, and yet the Blue Jays are still here.

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