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Jays on the outside again as teams gear up for the stretch drive

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero sits on the bench after being relieved against the Detroit Tigers in the sixth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, in Detroit.

Paul Sancya/AP

To baseball fans, the dawn of September usually signifies the beginning of meaningful games heading into the final few weeks of an arduous regular season, fuelled by the exciting prospect of advancing into the post-season.

Except, of course, to those supporters of the Toronto Blue Jays where the arrival of September these days brings with it a typical shrug of the shoulders along with some relief that the pain of yet another disappointing season is almost over.

Same old, same old.

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Even with the expansion of the wild card system to include two teams this year the Blue Jays still couldn't get it done, their season torpedoed long ago by a mind-boggling series of injuries to key playing personnel.

Heading into Friday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre, 15 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams were within 3 1/2 games of a playoff spot. The Blue Jays were not among that group.

Thanks to a demoralizing one-month stretch where 21 of 29 games were lost, Toronto headed into the Tampa game in last place in the American League East, 16 games off the pace being set by the New York Yankees.

The Blue Jays have not so much as had a sniff of the postseason since 1993, when they won their second of back-to-back World Series titles.

To put it another way: Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie was only three when the Blue Jays last played meaningful games in September.

"From a player's perspective, it's another year of disappointment and not where we wanted to be," Toronto closer Casey Janssen said.

And with tight races shaping up in almost all of baseball's six divisions, the Blue Jays will likely be missing out on something special over the coming weeks.

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Only the Cincinnati Reds, who were leading the National League Central by 8 1/2 games heading into Friday's tilt against Houston, appear to be a playoff lock.

And the Reds have maintained their lead despite the absence of leading hitter Joey Votto, their Toronto-born all-star first baseman who has been out since July 16 with an injured knee.

Votto could be ready to return to the lineup as early as Saturday, just in time to get rolling for some serious postseason play.

All the other divisions are shaping up to be a battle royale, including the A.L. East where even the Yankees are no longer the lock they once were, their 10-game lead now whittled down to three with both the surprising Baltimore Orioles and the Rays nipping at their pinstripes.

Who can forget last year's regular-season finale, where the wild card races in both leagues were up for grabs heading into the final night of the season and not a single postseason series had been determined?

Some still view it as the most exciting moment in baseball history, highlighted by the Rays, who entered the final day tied for the A.L. wild card berth with the Boston Red Sox, who had enjoyed a nine game lead in the standings over the Rays as late as Sept. 1.

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And after storming back from a seven-run disadvantage to defeat the New York Yankees in 12 innings, with the Red Sox losing to Baltimore, the wild card berth belonged to Tampa.

This season, Tampa's task would seem a little easier than last season at this time, trailing the Orioles by just 1 1/2 games for the second wild card prior to Friday's play.

Rays' manager Joe Maddon said he doesn't believe last season's September memory will be of any help to his team this time around.

"The only part that helps you is the fact that you know you can do it, but you've got to go out and play," he said.

The difference between this year and last are numerous, he said, including fewer pushovers such as Baltimore and the Oakland A's, who both remain in the playoff mix.

Maddon believes that this year's regular season finish, with so many teams still in contention, could wind up being even more compelling than last season's.

The Blue Jays only wish they could be going to the party.

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