Every game moving forward is meaningful for the Toronto Blue Jays, particularly this current nine-game stretch that began with a victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday.
With 14 games remaining, there’s simply no room for error. Barring a last-minute disaster, the Blue Jays are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2020, although that was a 16-team format in a COVID-shortened campaign.
And that playoff run was over before it really started, as the Tampa Bay Rays eliminated Toronto after just two games. The franchise’s last true postseason berth came in 2016 when it advanced to the ALCS but that also featured a disappointing outcome.
This season, the Blue Jays are hoping for improved results after missing last season’s playoffs by a single game. Thanks to the new CBA, a third wild-card seed has been added, altering the structure of the opening round.
Before, both wild-card teams from each league would compete in a one-game, winner-take-all showdown. That’s now been extended to a best-of-three series, with the top two wild-card seeds battling against each other and the third wild-card seed facing the division winner that holds the third-best record.
Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Blue Jays sit atop the wild-card standings, leading the Rays by two games and the Seattle Mariners by 2.5 games. As a result, FanGraphs places them at 99.9 percent to make the playoffs in 2022. You can’t go wrong with those odds.
At 84-64, though, the team has its sights set on something much larger than securing one of the three wild-card spots: chasing down the New York Yankees.
Accomplishing that feat seemed like a pipe dream not long ago, as the "Bronx Bombers" have controlled a massive lead almost all season. They led the division by 12 games on Aug. 1, but now that advantage has shrunk to 5.5 games.
The AL East remains New York’s to lose as the franchise features a 96.8 percent chance to capture its 21st division title. Anything is possible in baseball, though, as no lead is ever safe until you’re officially declared victorious.
It won’t be easy to overtake the Yankees, but the Blue Jays aren’t shying away from that challenge. The odds, however, are firmly stacked against them as they possess just a 3.2 percent chance to win the division.
Those odds can still change between now and the end of the regular season, which concludes on Oct. 5. If they’re to improve, the organization must capitalize on its upcoming stretch against the Rays and Yankees.
Once Toronto’s two-game series in Philadelphia wraps up, the team will travel to Tampa Bay for four games before heading home for a pivotal three-game set versus New York. These seven contests could potentially determine where the franchise is positioned in the postseason.
With a successful visit to Tropicana Field, the Blue Jays would increase their lead over the Rays, likely guaranteeing they’ll place higher than them in the wild card. Taking at least three out of four games would also win them the season series, which Tampa Bay currently leads 8-7.
That’s particularly notable because of the elimination of tiebreaker games. Previously, two teams would play a Game 163 if they finished tied by season’s end, but as part of the new CBA, tiebreakers are now determined by head-to-head records.
Unfortunately, the Blue Jays also trail in that department against the Yankees (7-9) and Mariners (2-5), making this current slate of games even more meaningful. While no games remain versus Seattle, sweeping New York would allow Toronto to take the season series.
And with Kevin Gausman starting Wednesday’s finale in Philadelphia, the Blue Jays’ starting rotation is currently aligned to have José Berríos, Alek Manoah and Ross Stripling available in Tampa Bay. That does mean Mitch White is likely to pitch on Saturday, though.
Because of that, however, Gausman is ticked to open next week’s series at the Rogers Centre against the Yankees. The three-game set will follow with Berríos and Manoah leading into an off-day on Sept. 29.
It will be crucial for Toronto to win both of those series, although to win the AL East, the club will also probably require assistance from other franchises. And that nearly happened Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium as the Pittsburgh Pirates blew a four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, sparked by outfielder Aaron Judge’s 60th home run.
The Yankees’ remaining schedule is much more favourable than the Blue Jays’, including two additional contests against the Pirates, four each against the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers and three against the Baltimore Orioles. That gives them the easiest strength of schedule (.488) in the division.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have a slightly tougher strength of schedule (.515), although it’s far less strenuous than the Rays’, who feature the toughest remaining slate (.547) in the AL and the third-hardest in the majors.
Interestingly, the Mariners possess the easiest strength of schedule (.432) in the majors as they still have five games versus the Oakland Athletics, four versus the Detroit Tigers, and three each versus the Kansas City Royals and Rangers. So they could still factor into the first wild-card seed.
Of course, Toronto can alleviate pressure on itself by sweeping Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and New York. Baseball usually isn’t that simple, though. Putting together a nine-game winning streak won’t be easy, especially against three playoff-bound teams.
As long as the Blue Jays win all three series, they should be in a favourable position heading into their final six games, with three against the Red Sox and three against the Orioles. If the opposite occurs, well, they’d have to grind through the rest of the way.
Considering the Blue Jays have done much of that in 2022, it would be ideal if they could avoid that outcome, allowing them to focus their efforts on chasing New York for the division crown.
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