The Toronto Blue Jays accomplished the unexpected on Thursday, reaching the postseason for the first time since 2016 in this crazy, pandemic-shortened year.
They beat the New York Yankees 4-1 in a home game in Buffalo with cardboard cut-outs taking the place of spectators. There was arelatively muted celebration – no bubbly in the clubhouse -- because of restrictions put in place to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
Few expected Toronto to shine in a season in which it became a major-league nomad, prevented first from playing at Rogers Centre because of the border closing, then rebuffed in attempts to share ballparks in Pittsburgh and Baltimore before they found a home away from home at Sahlen Field.
The reshuffling caused the Blue Jays to play on the road for two weeks when the 60-game campaign commenced.
“I am so proud of my club after everything we have gone through,” manager Charlie Montoyo said in a video question-and-answer session following the game. “I am a happy guy right now. These kids battled, There was a lot that went on for us to get to this point.”
Hyun-Jin Ryu, who signed the biggest free-agent contract in club history, was superb in his team-leading 12th start. Ryu baffled Yankees batters with a mixture of four-seam fastballs, cut fastballs and tantalizing curves. He limited New York to a second-inning double by Gio Urshela, a third-inning single by DJ LeMahieu, singles in the sixth by Luke Voit and Aaron Hicks, and a single in the seventh by Clint Frazier.
The Yankees threatened with the two singles to lead off the sixth inning, but Ryu got out of the jam by striking out Giancarlo Stanton on an 88-mile-an-hour cutter, induced Gleyber Torres to fly out to right, and then got Urshela on an easy grounder.
Ryu, who signed for US$80-million over four years in the offseason, allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his starts. The Blue Jays are 9-3 in the games he has pitched – and 21-24 in games started by anybody else. He became the team’s first starting pitcher to last seven innings this year, and has given up only 12 earned runs over his last 10 appearances.
“It is a good build up for the postseason,” Ryu said.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who wore a Go-Pro video camera atop his head during batting practice, put Toronto ahead 1-0 with a 412-foot home run to left centre. It was the eighth of the season and second in as many nights for the 21-year-old, who seems to be finding his batting stroke at just the right time. He went 3-for-4 and raised his average more than 20 percentage points in the series against New York.
“He could carry us for the whole playoffs,” Montoya said. “He has been lights out [lately].”
Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette delivered back-to-back doubles in the third inning for the second run, while Alejander Kirk doubled home two runs in the sixth. The 21-year-old rookie played Class-A ball last season, and was only recalled from the team’s alternate site on Sept. 12. He went 6 for 11 in the series against New York and will now likely see action as both a catcher and designated hitter in postseason. He was used as a DH for the first time on Thursday.
The Yankees scored a run and threatened more against reliever Anthony Bass in the eighth, but then Rafael Dolis came in and ended the inning by getting pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez out on a fly ball to centre that fell only a foot or two shy of being a grand slam.
“[When he hit it], I grabbed my cross and thought about my mom praying for me,” Montoya said.
Dolis, who closed for four seasons in Japan, got the final three outs for his fifth save.
Players hugged and exchanged high-fives after the game and posed for a picture wearing T-shirts that read, “Respect Toronto.”
“There is no after party,” Ryu said. “I guess it is 2020.”
The Blue Jays will be the No. 8 seed in the American League playoffs and will meet the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays in a best-of-three wild-card series beginning on Tuesday. Games will be contested beneath the roof at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
Being away from home is not a problem for Toronto, which has been rendered homeless by the novel coronavirus this season.
“The pressure is off,” Montoya said. “We’ve been playing playoff-style games for the last three weeks. These guys believe in themselves and that’s great. You can’t teach that.”
Toronto played the Yankees 10 times in the last 20 games and still nailed down a playoff position for the eighth time in club history. The Blue Jays will rest some of their key players for the final three games of the regular season against Baltimore.
Montoya said he hasn’t since his wife and family since July 15, but he called his wife and mother to celebrate after the game.
“[Afterward] I was thinking how about how great it would have been to win this game in Toronto and to celebrate with all of our fans,” Montoya said. “This win is for them.”