When the Toronto Blue Jays arrived in Seattle this week, their season was falling apart. And they faced a home team, the Mariners, directly behind them in the race for the playoffs. The meeting was billed locally as the most important home stand in years for Seattle, a city with the longest playoff drought in baseball.
The visiting Jays, however, were warmly welcomed. Toronto’s annual visit to Seattle always draws thousands of Canadians from across Western Canada to Safeco Field. But this week was something else. Vocal Jays fans – numbering more than 10,000 each game, belting out O Canada, and cheering raucously – often made it sound and feel as if Safeco was Rogers Centre West. A Seattle radio host, deflated by his own city’s showing for a crucial series, called it a “Canada takeover.”
Toronto capitalized and put an end to its September swoon, winning on Monday and Tuesday before losing 2-1 in 12 innings on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. The showing in Seattle solidified Toronto’s position for one of two American League wild-card playoff berths.
It is still a disappointing step down from the top of the AL East in August, but resilience on the West Coast puts Toronto in a more confident place than it was recently as the team returns home. Ten games remain. The next seven, in Toronto, are against their division rivals, first the New York Yankees and then the Baltimore Orioles, who hold the other AL wild-card slot.
“It gives you a lot of faith,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins said of the team’s showing in Seattle after weeks of struggle.
There were encouraging moments, but it wasn’t a resounding return to form, and nothing like the Jays of a year ago, when they rolled into the postseason as one of the best in baseball. This year’s team hasn’t shown it can deliver on a sustained basis.
In Seattle, it was Toronto’s pitchers who could be counted on each day. The bats came alive for one remarkable night – a 10-2 win on Tuesday that featured an eight-run fourth inning – but on Monday and Wednesday, the Jays hitters had the same problem they’ve had all month: many more runners were left on base than crossed home plate. And the fielding is still spotty.
The pall of losing – the Jays went into Seattle with the worst September record in baseball – is gone, at least. Looking at September now, the Jays lost six of their first seven but have since won six and lost six. Winning half their remaining games should be enough to scratch into the postseason, even if only for the one-game wild-card playoff.
A divide persists: the pitching is there; the offence, waking up, needs to come alive.
On Monday, Marco Estrada was back in form. He had a no-hitter through seven innings in a 3-2 win. J.A. Happ won his 20th game on Tuesday. Aaron Sanchez gave up one run in seven innings on Wednesday.
“It really felt like a playoff game,” said Estrada of Monday. “I know how good this team is. I know how good we can be.” Sanchez, after Wednesday’s loss, said: “We understand what it takes down the stretch. We’re ready.”
The first offensive surge in a while came Tuesday, when Josh Donaldon and Michael Saunders hit their first home runs this month. It was a welcome outpouring for a team that has seen its run production in September fall by one-third compared with the rest of the season.
“We’re a slugging team,” manager John Gibbons said in the dugout before Tuesday night’s game. “What’s happened lately, a few guys went cold at once, and that’s why things have been exposed. If a couple of them – not necessarily heat up – just warm up a little bit – we’ll be fine.”
A missing bat may be coming into form. On Tuesday, Jose Bautista helped spark the Jays in the fourth inning, grinding out a hit in a long at-bat that began the eight-run parade. It was the 28th consecutive game Bautista had reached base. After the win, there was some jubilance. Bautista danced in the locker room to Bruno Mars singing Uptown Funk. A 360-spin in front of his locker elicited claps and laughs from teammates.
On Wednesday, down 1-0 in the ninth, Bautista banged a game-tying homer. There was no bat flip but a strutting confidence was on display.
Asked before Tuesday’s game if the Jays were turning a corner, Bautista tried to assert the team had not been going backward. He rattled off positives and cited the coming seven games at home against the Yankees and Orioles and the season’s final three on the road in Boston.
“We’re definitely in control of our own destiny,” Bautista said. “I like where we are. Our confidence is high.”Report Typo/Error