By Keegan Matheson
TORONTO — As the marathon winds down, with teams stumbling and sprinting through this final stretch of September, you’re finally starting to see the Blue Jays separating themselves.
With Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Orioles, Toronto is 13-4 this month — a club playing its best baseball at the best possible time. By doing so, the Blue Jays are giving some shape to a postseason picture that’s desperately needed it, and they’re showing some early signs of shaking free from the pack.
“This is a little bit of everything,” said interim manager John Schneider. “We’ve got good starting pitching, timely hitting and today, great defense. That’s a good recipe at the right time of year. They’re looking forward and they’re up for these challenges. We’re playing tough teams, but we’re playing really good baseball right now.”
For weeks, looking at the AL Wild Card race was hardly worth your time. Each day, it would be the same jumble of teams separated by a game here and there, but nothing seemed to change. Baltimore was the marvel of that group, doing more with less while emerging as one of baseball’s best stories. As recently as Sept. 3, the young O’s were just 1 1/2 games out of the final Wild Card spot. Now, they’re five games out of the final spot and seven back of the Blue Jays.
Toronto’s closing stretch with so many games against the Orioles and Rays — not to mention the Yankees, who suddenly have just a five-game lead in the AL East — makes every game high stakes.
“We have to win no matter what,” said José Berríos, who gave the Blue Jays another six innings of two-run ball. “Whoever is out there, we have to go out there and beat them. We have a great record this month so far. We are playing so well as a team. Everyone is together in that group. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
The win also gives the Blue Jays a 1 1/2-game lead over the Mariners, who play the Angels later on Saturday, for the top Wild Card spot. That means home-field advantage in the Wild Card round for all three games, which Toronto doesn’t take lightly.
Beyond the usual benefits of playing at home — we all remember those home crowds from the 2015 and ‘16 postseason runs — opposing players still face a COVID-19 vaccination requirement to enter Canada, which could become a factor depending on the opponent. This won’t impact the Blue Jays, a fully vaccinated club that’s followed the exact same restrictions going across the border in the other direction.
This recent success isn’t accidental, of course. Bo Bichette has turned around a frustrating season, quickly reminding Major League Baseball that he’s one of the best offensive shortstops in the game with an incredible tear through early September. Alek Manoah has found another gear. Jordan Romano looks like a closer capable of looking a World Series in the eye and smirking.
Tapia got it started with the glove, making a leaping catch to rob extra bases at the left-field wall in the very first inning. Jump ahead to the fifth, with the Blue Jays holding a slim 3-2 lead, when Tapia cleared the bases with a three-run double over the head of Baltimore’s center fielder. Tapia’s been oddly comfortable with the bases loaded in his career, now owning a .424 average in those situations.
“To be honest with you, I love those moments,” Tapia said. “I feed off the energy of the moment. The fans, when we’re here, are rooting for me. When we’re playing away, they’re booing, but I feel that energy too. I love those moments.”
Following the win, Schneider said that the moment has a way of finding Tapia when he’s in the lineup, and that’s been the case lately. Tapia’s name doesn’t top the list on this Toronto roster filled with stars, but it’s been these small contributions from role players that have kept the Blue Jays afloat long enough to step on the gas down the stretch.
The Orioles are quickly fading in their rearview mirror, once a threat but no longer a worry in ‘22. A series sweep Sunday could be the final nail in Baltimore’s coffin, and the Blue Jays plan on doing that to a few more teams before it’s all over.