It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Toronto Blue Jays’ three-game set with the New York Yankees that begins on Tuesday is one of the biggest regular-season series in franchise history.
In the Blue Jays’ 45-season history they’ve made the playoffs just eight times, and in the 37 instances they’ve missed out, they’ve rarely been close enough for their fate to be decided in the final days. In 1987, a final series with the Detroit Tigers determined whether they played October baseball (they were swept and found themselves on the outside looking in), but aside from that the misses have rarely been near misses, and the very end of the season has seldom been definitive.
This time around, it’s coming down to the wire, even if there are enough complicating factors that the team’s destiny won’t be known with certainty until the campaign’s final days. What we do know is that a sweep against the Yankees puts the Blue Jays in an excellent spot, a series win lands them in uncertain territory, a 1-2 has them hoping for a miracle, and three losses closes the book on a rollercoaster of a season.
We also, for the most part, know some of the players likeliest to determine the outcome of these crucial contests. On the mound, the Blue Jays are rolling out 2020 ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, deadline acquisition José Berríos, and Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray. Games, if they’re even remotely close, will be finished by some combination of Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is likely to have something to say about the outcome, as will the other guy having an MVP-calibre season: Marcus Semien.
Contributions up and down the roster will be needed if the Blue Jays are going to seize a wild-card spot, though. It’s going to take more than the club’s biggest stars to topple the Yankees, but luckily for Toronto there are a few players with “unlikely hero” potential. Here are some Blue Jays X-Factors for a series with enormous stakes:
Alejandro Kirk C/DH
Although Kirk has cooled off lately, he wields precisely the type of bat the Blue Jays need against the Yankees. In contrast to the rest of his body, the 22-year-old’s hands are extremely quick, which has helped him catch up to high-velocity fastballs that other hitters miss. That’s especially handy against the Yankees because not only do they have Gerrit Cole starting Wednesday, but the top four pitchers in their bullpen (Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Clay Holmes, and Luis Severino) all average more than 95 mph on their heaters.
On pitches 95+ mph, Kirk has hit an excellent .289 in his career and slugged .500. He’s even hit a home run on a high 99-mph fastball from Cole himself earlier in September:
The young catcher also profiles to hit the other two Yankees starters well as both Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber’s best bat-missing pitches are curveballs, which Kirk has hit .421 and slugged .842 against without striking out. The sample size is awfully small there (72 pitches), but it’s the type of mini edge manager Charlie Montoyo could consider when filling out his lineup.
In this series, the biggest question for Kirk will be how much playing time he draws as Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could soak up DH at-bats coming back from his hand injury, and Kirk might not be trusted defensively with anyone but Robbie Ray on the mound.
The two most notable things about the Yankees lineup is that it skews right-handed, and there’s no shortage of power up and down it. The two most notable things about Cimber is that he neutralizes right-handed hitters and he keeps the ball in the park.
Of the 255 pitchers who have logged at least 60 innings this season, Cimber’s 0.13 HR/9 is the lowest and the second-lowest mark (Emmanuel Clase’s 0.27) is more than twice as high. Even looking at Cimber’s whole career, the 0.57 HR/9 he’s managed since his MLB debut in 2018 is the lowest in the major leagues, this time among 226 pitchers with at least 200 innings under their belts.
When you combine that with the measly .253/.296/.341 he’s held right-handers to in his career (with an even more toothless .258/.301/.307 in 2021), Cimber is the ideal guy to limit the damage when runners are on base — or pitch to the dreaded Aaron Judge-Giancarlo Stanton duo.
The Blue Jays have gotten far more than they bargained for from Espinal in 2021 on both sides of the ball. The infielder’s most obvious contribution has been his elite defence at third base, which has been a problem area for Toronto whenever he’s not in the game — according to both the naked eye and defensive metrics:
To go along with his stellar glove, Espinal has wielded a surprisingly productive bat in 2021. Although the .291/.354/.379 line the 26-year-old has put up might have a touch of flukiness attached to it, it’s impossible to argue with a .354 OBP that ranks second on the team — behind just Guerrero Jr. For much of the season, the bottom of the Blue Jays lineup has struggled to get on base for the top, but Espinal has helped reverse that trend when healthy.
With leadoff man George Springer seeming to heat up, hits from the bottom of the order could be especially valuable in this series, and Espinal is a good candidate to produce them.
When Pearson returned to the Blue Jays bullpen on Sept. 3, he was expected to quickly become a trusted weapon based on his elite stuff. Although his fastball can still touch triple digits, and his slider has nasty movement both vertically and horizontally, that hasn’t exactly been the case. In 8.2 innings Pearson’s 4.15 ERA, 4.55 FIP, and 4.15 BB/9 haven’t inspired confidence, and he has yet to enter Montoyo’s circle of trust.
Even so, the big right-hander has been better of late (he’s allowed just one run in his last five outings), and has consistently missed bats since returning to the Blue Jays (13.50 K/9). At some point the team may have to use a reliever outside of the Romano, Mayza, Cimber, and Trevor Richards quartet — especially if Ryu can’t find his bearings on Tuesday after two straight brutal starts.
Pearson can provide length in case one of the starters struggles, his elite velocity would give the Yankees a different look, and like Cimber, his fastball/slider combo plays better against right-handers. In fact, the 72 righties who’ve faced Pearson in his young MLB career have produced a pitiful .172/.270/.313. Montoyo may not be in a rush to use the youngster considering his high-leverage brigade is well established, but he might have to — and he might be pleasantly surprised with the results.
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