The previous time the Toronto Blue Jays played at home, they were humiliated by the Tampa Bay Rays. Josh Donaldson had been sitting out for days with what was beginning to seem like a mystery injury. Manager John Gibbons announced that the team had hit “rock bottom.”
Though the sentiment fit the moment, it was a weird thing to say about a team sitting in a playoff position. It’s less odd when you think of it as what might be the beginning of the end.
Because over the next two weeks, the Blue Jays will determine through their performance if this team is something built to last, or one that needs to be turned over.
It started well on Friday evening, with a 9-0 humiliation of the flailing New York Yankees.
For more than a year, there had been nothing but joy in New Mudville. The first bit of trouble and everyone headed past panic and straight into despair.
Not the fans. The team.
They had the glazed look of men who have just watched the iceberg come and go. They don’t feel it yet, but they know the ship is sinking.
Things didn’t exactly go well on the West Coast. Gibbons described a 4-3 road swing by saying, “We survived it.” It was intermittently awful to watch, but it was at least a winning record.
Back in town on Friday, the funeral atmosphere had bled off. What replaced it didn’t feel loose, so much as benignly resigned.
Most team members came out for batting practice wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the number, name and infantilized emoji likeness of second baseman Devon Travis.
This was all part of an inside joke that lay halfway between needlessly complicated and incredibly stupid, but at least they weren’t all filling their pockets with rocks and heading toward the lake.
Close to despondent when they left, Gibbons had now veered back into irrational exuberance. With 10 games to go and 5 1/2 games behind Boston, which had not lost in eight, the manager said he still hadn’t given up on the American League East.
“We’re in a good spot, but it’s not going to be easy,” Gibbons said. “Ideally, we’d love a shot to go into the final three games [of the season, at Fenway Park] with a shot to win the division.”
Everyone who deals with Gibbons likes him. Most like him an awful lot. That that remark was met with stunned silence instead of jeering laughter tells you just how much.
(Of course, if he’d said the obvious thing – “It’s over” – people would kill him for it.)
The Jays are going to win the division like I’m going to win Mr. Olympia. The goal now is to play the wild-card at home.
“You gotta approach each game to win that game,” Gibbons said of the little that remains of the regular season. People say that all the way along, but it’s finally true.
We have gone beyond the hope/anguish barrier and into the realm of pure acceptance. Sit down, cross your legs and contemplate baseball nothingness. We are all in fate’s hands now.
If there’s no point in worrying any more, neither is there any compelling reason to be bullish. Based on form and quality, the Jays are about the fourth-best team in the American League right now. They might still fall short of the playoffs or they might squeeze their way into the World Series.
You’d have to go back to those ‘who-knows?’ teams of the late 1980s to recall a good Blue Jays team that was so hard to figure.
Last year at this point, the Jays were the Red Sox – not yet clinched, but headed inexorably in that direction. The result was a gradual easing off that nearly killed them once the postseason began. It took Toronto three games to play its way back into mental game-shape against the Texas Rangers.
If there’s anything positive about this year’s September swoon, it’s that that can’t happen twice.
There are no opportunities to set up the rotation or rest the bullpen. There won’t be any mini-vacations for position players. There is no room to tinker or think too hard. All you can do is throw your best nine out there every day and hope it works.
Enter the New York Yankees. If you’re feeling a little beat up by the past few weeks of the baseball season, think of all those poor (i.e. rich) faux-Bronx Manhattanites and Connecticut wannabes who pull for baseball’s Evil Empire.
Their season was supposed to end at the trade deadline. After giving away some key personnel, the Yankees inexplicably got much better (parenthetical: Scouts – what exactly do they do again?).
Facing that sort of team and perhaps shamed by the showing of western Canadians in Seattle, the fans had re-entered the fray.
For this entire run, there has been an unusually close connection between the Rogers Centre crowd and the team. When the fans are on from the start, the team often is as well.
They were up on their feet in the first when catcher Russell Martin sprawled for a foul ball near his own dugout steps (he missed). They were back up when a bases-loaded Troy Tulowitzki single brought home the first couple of runs. And again when Kevin Pillar slid down and around an awkward tag at first.
This was everyone digging in for the final push – in more senses than one.
No one wants to talk about this yet, but we could well be in the last days of the current Jays era. If the season goes sideways, the coaching staff turns over, players start leaving and hard choices have to be made.
The Jays could be a few weeks from the beginning of a rebuild. They could be a few months away from a return to mediocrity, by design.
It’s a precarious spot, but there’s no sense in worrying. There’s nothing can be done about the team now. It either will be or it won’t.
You don’t often associate stoicism with winning. But since every other way has failed, it’s worth a try.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: