A storybook ending to a most unusual regular season was within reach for the Toronto Blue Jays, who used a September surge to make things very interesting down the stretch.
The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees simply didn’t co-operate on a memorable final day.
Toronto finished just short of playoff inclusion while their American League East rivals advanced in dramatic fashion, forcing the Blue Jays to ruminate on what might have been.
“I’m proud of the way we fought and proud of the way we finished,” said shortstop Bo Bichette. “With everything we went through at the end of the day, we held the cards pretty late in the season. So we had our opportunities and we didn’t get it done.
“We’ll just learn from it and come at it next year ready to go.”
A three-game sweep of Baltimore on the final weekend wasn’t enough to book a post-season ticket. Toronto needed help from other teams to qualify and didn’t get it, leaving the Blue Jays one game short.
The Yankees and Red Sox pulled out wins Sunday to set up a wild-card matchup between the long-time foes on Tuesday night. For a Blue Jays team that stormed into contention with a 19-9 September, it was a tough way to finish a solid 91-71 season.
“We became, in my opinion, the best team in baseball,” second baseman Marcus Semien said shortly after the team learned its fate. “But it was just a tick too late.”
There was still much to celebrate from a campaign that had Canada’s lone big-league team play more than half of its home schedule south of the border.
Semien and fellow slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had Most Valuable Player-calibre seasons. Robbie Ray is one of the favourites to win the Cy Young Award. Alek Manoah was one of the top rookies in the majors and skipper Charlie Montoyo did well to guide the team into contention.
The Blue Jays led the major leagues with 262 home runs, topping the previous franchise best of 257 in 2010. Guerrero led the way with 48 homers on the season – tied for top spot with Kansas City’s Salvador Perez – and Teoscar Hernandez was third in the majors with 116 RBIs.
Bichette and Guerrero finished just behind hits leader Trea Turner and Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., took on the closer’s role with aplomb.
The first half was a struggle at times as the pandemic forced the Blue Jays to use their spring-training home of Dunedin, Fla., before eventually moving north to Buffalo, the home of their triple-A affiliate.
Toronto was like a road team in its home ballpark depending on the opposition, making a middling 33-35 record in mid-June seem more passable. Mediocre defensive play and an inconsistent bullpen didn’t help matters.
A move to Rogers Centre finally came in late July and a doubling of capacity limits to 30,000 was made last week.
The acquisition of Jose Berrios at the trade deadline solidified a rotation that blossomed in the second half. Players fed off the boost from the boisterous crowds and Toronto’s .694 winning percentage at Rogers Centre (25-11) was a franchise-best.
However, closing the road schedule with a split of a four-game series against Minnesota, a team that finished last in the AL Central, was not ideal. Dropping two of three to the Yankees last week was even more costly as Toronto was no longer in control of its own destiny.
“Us as a team, we know what we can do,” said outfielder George Springer, a big-ticket signing who battled injuries throughout the season. “I think we played great baseball all year but I think we played our game of baseball in the second half for sure.
“I just think it’s one of those things where we’ve got to figure out how to be that team all year.”
Despite the strong finish, Toronto still settled for fourth place in the tough American League East behind Tampa Bay (100-62), Boston (92-70) and New York (92-70).
But with a strong young core providing the nucleus for a club that now has a solid foundation in place, the Blue Jays appear to be on the cusp of reaching the next level.
“This year was special,” said Semien, who’ll be a top free agent this off-season along with Ray. “The home run record, the all-stars, the accolades.
“But when you don’t make the playoffs, it makes you even more hungry to do better and I think you’re going to see that next year.”