Ten days ago, in this space, I wrote a take-a-deep-breath column on the Blue Jays. Long way to go, I said. Plenty of baseball left. No need to panic.
Well, scratch that. It’s getting close to time to panic. Not precisely time, but it wouldn’t hurt to change into roomy panicking clothes and maybe put on a helmet. For all the thrashing about.
Taking the series at home against Detroit over a bajillion innings was a wonderful highlight. That seven-hour game on Sunday may have been the best Jays moment in a decade. (Not for me, though. For me it was the day B.J. Ryan left. That was the moment the ship began to turn.)
Then they go to Seattle and roll over in three straight late-night West Coast games. It’s as if they know we’ve all gone to bed, and so don’t feel the need to try very hard. More than any team in town, the Jays require the rest of us keeping an eye on them. This team is underserviced on a number of fronts, but you get the queasy feeling that the most pressing of these is late-in-the-season mettle.
You watch the Yankees flailing about behind them and think, “Yeah, but they’re the Yankees. They’ll figure it out when it really matters.”
Maybe, or maybe not. But they’ve earned that benefit of the doubt. The Jays haven’t.At this point, the Jays aren’t fighting another team every three or four days. They’re wrestling with the odds.
In the two years since the introduction of the second wild-card spot, the lowest win total that’s sneaked you into the American League postseason is 92. Since the wild card’s debut, no team has made it with fewer than 91 wins.
The Jays have 63 victories. They have 40 games remaining. Probabilities suggest they need to win at least 27 of them – that would be a baseline. That’s .675 baseball for a team that right now is just a smidge over .500. That’s more than a big ask.
What’s more alarming than the numbers is the tenor of the conversation.
Commenting on the number of Jays fans at Safeco Field over the past few days, starter R.A. Dickey said this to the Toronto Star’s Richard Griffin: “Regardless of what we do the remainder of season, and we’re all hopeful that we’re going to be in the postseason. It’s an incredible environment to come to this place and see so many loyal Canadian fans support us.”
You don’t have to live long in this town to pick up the general baseball vibe, such as it’s been since dinosaurs roamed the Earth: “Just get us to September. We’ll forgive you anything if you give us a reason to care about something beyond the Leafs’ training camp.” It’s understandable in fans, but the team can’t allow themselves to imbibe that draft of mediocrity. The numbers bode against them, but their competition isn’t doing any better.
The real key to a playoff race isn’t the number of games you’re behind, but how many teams stand between you and a playoff spot. The odds that three or four teams will stumble in front of you are depressingly slight. Right now, it’s still only the bumptious Tigers and the who-knows-exactly-what-they-are? Mariners. It’s still only three games.
The division is probably gone, but the wild card is there to be plucked.
So, please, no more “regardless of what we do” and “we can make it if we all wish upon a star” talk. You know he means well, and he’s speaking after a night in which he was disappointed in his own performance, but Dickey must understand that that sort of shoulder shrugging from a veteran is contagious in a locker room. Until this is done, the attitude must be win or win. No second options.
This team will be a serious player when it’s moved beyond the heroic-loss phase of its building process. In the fullness of time, we may agree that this team wasn’t deep or formidable enough to be serious contenders. Let’s not do it while they’re still serious contenders.
The season can’t be won in the next two weeks, but it can most certainly be lost.
On Friday night, the Jays begin a three-game stand in Chicago, playing the wrong Chicago team, the White Sox. After that, two games in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Detroit and Seattle will be playing each other in Washington.
That has the feel of a treading-water stretch. Unless the Jays completely pooch it, they will come out of that no worse than they entered. They win a couple or three. The Mariners and Tigers split the three-game series. The Jays neither lose nor gain ground. Given how they’ve looked over the past three nights, that’s a best-case scenario.
It’s when they get back home that matters grow deeply serious. For 15 games, the Jays go hard against the AL East, including a dozen against the Red Sox and the Rays.
Those two teams have given up on the year. They’re low-hanging fruit. Fifteen of their next 18 games are against teams with losing records. Twelve are at home. The schedule tilts toward them for the next while, and then away toward the end.
If the Jays have changed – in that fundamental way that is supra-statistics, and speaks to an alchemical mix of bluster and refusing to accept what’s likely – they will tear through this telling stretch.
The season is still set up for them to succeed. They’re thin on every front. They aren’t hitting. They don’t have much pitching.
But at some point with this franchise, you have to move past the regular excuses, and do the things that some successful teams manage through force of will.