On the eve of his first major-league playoff game, Bo Bichette mulled what it was going to be like. Exciting for sure, the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop said. But not likely what he and many of the team’s other young players imagined as kids.
“It will be different,” Bichette said Monday on a video call from Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Normally when you think of your first postseason, you think of 40,000 people [in the stands] and not being able to think because it is so loud.
“Even without fans, I am sure there will be a ton of adrenaline based on the magnitude of the game. It’s going to come from within. This is something we have grown up wanting to do."
The Blue Jays will get their first taste of the pandemic playoffs when they meet Tampa Bay at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Blake Snell, a Cy Young Award winner, will make the start for the Rays. Matt Shoemaker, who did not win any of his six starts this year, got the surprise call in the opener of the best-of-three wild-card series for Toronto.
The team’s ace, Hyun-jin Ryu, will pitch on Wednesday afternoon. He has allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of 12 games, but manager Charlie Montoyo said the order of his starting rotation was less important than it would be in a longer series. In this case, no starter will pitch more than once. Taijuan Walker will go on Thursday, if necessary.
“We said we were going to be creative from the beginning [of the season] and that’s how we got here,” Montoyo said. “And to beat one of the best teams in baseball we are going to have to be creative. It makes sense to us to do it that way. We feel it is our best chance.”
Shoemaker missed time as he recovered from a muscle strain but returned to throw three sharp innings against the Yankees in the next-to-last series of the regular season. He has never lost to Tampa Bay in seven starts, and pitched once in the postseason for the Los Angeles Angels in 2014. In that game, he threw six innings against the Kansas City Royals and did not give up an earned run.
He learned on Sunday that he was going to get the start in Game 1.
“It’s awesome,” Shoemaker said. “My excitement level is through the roof. This is only my second time pitching in the postseason but I got a really good taste of it early on. You always miss it when you are not there. It’s where you know you want to be.”
The Blue Jays finished 32-28 during the abbreviated campaign and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2016 as the eighth and last seed in the American League. At 40-20, the Rays had the league’s best record and are seeded first. The teams played 10 times during the regular season, all early on, with Tampa Bay winning six. Three of the games went to extra innings, and four of the Toronto losses were by one run.
“The Rays are a really great team,” Bichette said. "But to have the experience of playing them really tight, and losing a lot of games we think we should have won, gives us a lot of confidence coming in here. We just have to believe in ourselves and let our talent go and we will have a good shot.
"We have the talent to surprise people.”
Toronto qualified for the postseason without having a single player who has been in the major leagues for 10 years or more, something that hasn’t been done in more than a century. The only teams to have done it previously are the 1912 Red Sox and 1915 Phillies.
The Blue Jays' core players are all young: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is 21. Bichette is 22. Cavan Biggio turned 25 in April. All three are the sons of former major-league standouts: Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Dante Bichette and Craig Biggio.
“They were raised in the big leagues,” Montoyo said. “That’s why they look comfortable."
Bichette missed more than half of the season because of a sprained right knee, but finished with a .301 batting average with five home runs and 23 runs batted in. As a rookie last year, he hit .311 in 46 games with 11 homers and 21 RBI.
“He is doing the same thing he did [then]” Montoyo said. “The league has not caught up with him yet. What he has done is very impressive.”
The Blue Jays do not have to announce their 28-man postseason roster until Tuesday morning. Montoyo said he was waiting to make decisions on first baseman Rowdy Tellez and relief pitcher Jordan Romano until after seeing them during a late-afternoon workout Monday at Tropicana Field. Both are nursing injuries.
Bichette and his teammates are eager to take on the Rays. Montoyo said over the weekend that his players wanted that matchup. They missed a chance to move up to the No. 5 seed with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles in Sunday’s season finale.
“It was a tough matchup all year and they are looking forward to that challenge again,” Montoyo said. “That’s what I love about these guys. They are hungry.”