Blue Jays lean on bullpen, young nucleus in pursuit of unexpected playoff berth

An expanded playoff structure for the truncated 2020 baseball season has given the Toronto Blue Jays more reason to focus on the present as well as the future.

The team’s overhaul took over three years to complete and is finally showing signs of fruit. The Blue Jays enter the second half of the 60-game campaign with a solid chance of reaching the post-season for the first time in four years.

Rather than unloading assets for prospects, Toronto’s front office built on its young core in the off-season via free-agent signings and trades. The team still appears far from being a true contender but the strides are evident.

General manager Ross Atkins said the progress was evident at camp last spring.

“We saw a lot of the things that we’re seeing play out on the field because we have the hood open on the engine, much more so than our fans do,” he said. “It was in spring training where we started to really get a good feeling about this group.”

WATCH | Sporting world unifies in battle against racial injustice:

Devin Heroux of CBC Sports reflects on a week in sports that saw a united show of solidarity across professional leagues in support of racial justice. 2:48

Entering Friday night’s home game against Baltimore in Buffalo, N.Y., the 15-14 Blue Jays were third in the American League East and held the second wild-card position in the revamped eight-team AL playoff structure. Toronto has a 66.1-per cent chance of reaching the post-season, according to FanGraphs.

Another sign of the transition to more of a win-now mode is the buyer’s activity ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.

Atkins completed two trades with Seattle this week without giving up players from the active roster. He acquired right-hander Taijuan Walker to boost an injury-depleted starting rotation and added Daniel Vogelbach for offensive depth.

Despite injuries to several key players and an uneven start to the season, the Blue Jays have managed to find a groove of late. Defensive miscues were common early, but the team appears to have settled in and looks as confident as ever.

Second baseman Cavan Biggio has been an anchor and shortstop Bo Bichette was on a tear before a knee injury took him out of the lineup. Teoscar Hernandez is among the league leaders in homers and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is starting to come around with the bat and the glove after moving across the diamond to first base.

Bullpen depth a strength

Perhaps Toronto’s biggest improvement this season is bullpen depth. Relievers have continued to deliver even with closer Ken Giles sidelined with a right forearm strain.

Key contributors A.J. Cole, Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., Thomas Hatch and Anthony Bass all entered play Friday with earned-run averages under 2.00.

Big-ticket free-agent signing Hyun Jin Ryu has been a steady presence in a rotation that has been hammered by injuries. Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Walker will be counted on to provide quality innings with Matt Shoemaker (shoulder), Trent Thornton (elbow) and Nate Pearson (elbow) unavailable.

“Nothing but confidence with the guys that we have in the locker-room,” Biggio said. “Guys that are hurt will be coming back, guys like Bo, Ken Giles is going to be coming back. It’s going to be an exciting club down the stretch.”

Gearing up for tough September

Manager Charlie Montoyo has done well pulling the strings to get his club into playoff contention in a season in which Toronto has been forced to make Buffalo a temporary home after the federal government quashed a plan for the team to play at Rogers Centre during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The true test will come in September when pressure will be high.

After series with Baltimore, Miami and Boston, the Blue Jays will play 10 games against the powerhouse New York Yankees over an 18-day stretch.

If that make-or-break run doesn’t provide clarity, a season-closing three-game weekend series against the Orioles just might. Baltimore entered play Friday night just one game behind Toronto for the final wild-card spot.

“We’re improving in all areas,” Montoyo said. “Pitching is the key. They’ve done a good job so far and hopefully it keeps going like that.

“That will give us a really good chance.”

Source link