The Toronto Blue Jays will be a critical factor in determining the wild-card race down the stretch. How seriously they intend to take the responsibility, is the question.
A strong hint arrived with the posting of Friday night's lineup, for a game against the Baltimore Orioles at the Rogers Centre.
Three regulars are being restored by manager John Gibbons: second baseman Munenori Kawasaki, centre fielder Colby Rasmus and first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion.
The Jays are scheduled to play all of their remaining 16 games against playoff-contending AL East opponents with the exception of a makeup game against the Chicago White Sox.
While postseason aspirations long ago evaporated for the Blue Jays, the Orioles and charging New York Yankees, their opponents for the remainder of the homestand, are vying for wild-card berths. They next face AL East-leading Boston at Fenway Park before closing out the schedule on the road against Baltimore and at home to Tampa Bay.
Entering weekend play, Texas and Tampa Bay hold down the two wild-card slots in the American League, the Rangers in front of the Rays by two games. Following a 6-5 win over the Orioles on Thursday, the Yankees are perched one game behind Tampa Bay, the Cleveland Indians are 1-1/2 games behind, while the Orioles and Kansas City Royals are 2-1/2 games out.
The Blue Jays have taken seven of 13 games from the Orioles to date including a three-game sweep in June that climaxed their 11-game win streak. That streak gave fans false hope that the Jays would be in the playoff hunt in September, as are all four of their division rivals.
Instead, September was being turned into an extended tryout with regular playing time given to several minor leaguers -- outfielders Moises Sierra, Anthony Gose and Kevin Pillar, and second baseman Ryan Goins. All but Sierra are struggling at the plate.
Gose, rather than regular reserve Rajai Davis, is written into Friday's lineup in place of disabled Melky Cabrera in left field, and Sierra is taking right fielder Jose Bautista's place.
Bautista shut down with a leg-bone bruise on August 21 because he and the club mutually deemed it wasn’t worth coming back from a leg-bruise injury for these final few weeks against playoff contenders. Encarnacion, four shy of a second consecutive 40-home run season, hadn’t played since last Saturday due to a wrist strain. Rasmus, out 29 games with an oblique strain, stated on Tuesday than he felt ready to play this weekend, but the club hadn’t committed until Friday afternoon.
Gibbons had reduced playing time for second baseman Munenori Kawasaki and infielder Mark DeRosa. Kawasaki also got the start on Thursday.
DeRosa challenged the team in August to finish strong down the stretch in order to bring some positive feelings into spring. But only Jose Reyes and Sierra are hitting consistently this month, and the defence has deteriorated with fundamental misplays.
Gibbons is dealing with an unmanageable number of relievers in the bullpen, 13, due to September call-ups. The pen got some work during a three-game sweep by the Los Angeles Angels, as the starting pitchers contributed a total of 13-2/3 innings in the three losses.
The Orioles, Yankees and Rays have their entire seasons at stake over the next three weeks. Meantime, Rogers Centre spectators are paying major league money -- not Grapefruit League prices -- for their seats.
The crowd got excited once on Thursday night, rising to their feet in the ninth inning with the team trailing by a run, when Jose Reyes hit a two-out double and Kawasaki worked a walk to set the stage for Brett Lawrie. Lawrie struck out but for a minute or two there, it felt to the crowd like the outcome of the game mattered.