Blue Jays’ playoff fate rests on performance against improved competition

Photo credit:Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
7 months ago
The Toronto Blue Jays control their playoff destiny with three weeks remaining in the regular season. But to ensure they’re among the six American League post-season representatives, they must finish strong down the stretch over these final 18 games – 12 of which are against teams above .500.
Prior to this sprint to the finish line, the Blue Jays enjoyed the softest portion of their schedule by playing 15 consecutive games versus sub-.500 opponents, with nine coming against the last-place Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals. While they only swept one of those series and left a few wins on the table, it was still productive as they went 10-5 in those contests, surging into the second wild-card position.
It also improved Toronto’s record versus sub-.500 teams to 42-21, the seventh-best in the majors. But they’re supposed to take advantage of lesser clubs, and it’d be concerning if they weren’t. Now it’s time to see if they can do the same against improved competition.
The Blue Jays had the luxury of facing some of baseball’s worst pitching staffs over that recent 15-game span, which they didn’t always take advantage of. They no longer possess that advantage, though, as most of the arms they’ll line up against moving forward will be proven big-league competitors on playoff contenders.
That should serve as a massive test for a lineup that has proven inconsistent throughout the 2023 campaign, mainly when it involves providing run support for a starting rotation and bullpen that has carried this club thus far.
Runs haven’t been as tough to generate lately, as Toronto scored 91 in those 15 contests against weaker teams – the sixth-most in the majors across that period. Still, those outbursts primarily occurred later than most would’ve preferred and didn’t always come in the cleanest of ways.
Take Sunday’s series finale versus Kansas City, for example.
Toronto’s offence was held to just one hit by Cole Ragans through the first five innings, albeit while also drawing three walks, making it seem like another situation where they’d have to mount a comeback against the bullpen. Or, at least, it did until the Royals’ young phenom mysteriously lost the strike zone with two outs in the sixth and uncorked three straight wild pitches, one of which saw him fall off the mound, to gift the Blue Jays a pair of runs.
If not for that bizarre sequence, who knows if Kevin Kiermaier’s solo blast in the seventh still sparks the lineup like it did, resulting in two insurance runs during the ensuing inning en route to a series-sweeping 5-2 victory. But would it have been another missed opportunity without Ragans’ sudden collapse?
This season has been littered with those along the way, which, for the most part, is why the Blue Jays find themselves fighting for a wild-card seed rather than a division title. Despite that, this current four-game set against the Texas Rangers is a chance to extinguish some of those demons while also improving their post-season odds.
After dropping two of three at Globe Life Field in June, Toronto must win three out of four over Texas to secure the tiebreaker, ensuring they finish ahead in the standings if both finish with identical records. The problem, however, is the Rangers took the opener by a 10-4 score, dropping the Blue Jays to 38-43 against teams at .500 or better.
The good news is there are still three games left between these former rivals. But unlike any of Toronto’s previous five series, there’ll be almost zero margin for error as each contest will undoubtedly be managed like a playoff showdown – something both clubs are all too familiar with from their high-tension 2015 and ’16 clashes.
But things won’t be any easier after the Blue Jays finish up against the Rangers, with all 15 remaining games against AL East opponents. That’ll begin with three versus the Boston Red Sox, followed by a pair of three-game series against the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.
As a result, Toronto’s remaining strength of schedule (.530) is tied with the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals for the toughest in the majors heading into Tuesday’s slate, per FanGraphs. And yet, even with just a half-game lead over Texas for the second AL wild-card spot, Canada’s lone MLB franchise has a 73.3% chance to make the playoffs for a third time in four seasons.
Those post-season odds can change rather quickly during this time of the year, as most Blue Jays fans have discovered over the last few weeks, with the club’s percentage growing by almost 35% after hitting a season-low 38.4% on Aug. 29. And that dramatic shift will likely continue – one way or another – depending on the outcome of these next three games versus the Rangers.
In the end, however, the organization’s playoff hopes will probably be decided by one overarching factor: their performance against the AL East. That has been a major concern all year, as evidenced by their disappointing 12-25 record. But 10 of those losses came against the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, who they won’t face again in 2023 unless their paths cross in the post-season.
Outside of Baltimore, Toronto has struggled the most versus Boston, going 3-7 on the year, with all three victories coming via a weekend sweep at Fenway Park last month. But considering the Red Sox are six games out of a playoff spot and have dropped 12 of their previous 20 entering Tuesday, this might be the ideal time to face them.
The Blue Jays also hold identical losing records (3-4) against the Yankees and Rays, with whom they’ll play six more times each before the regular season closes. Since the AL wild-card race appears headed for a nail-biting conclusion, there’ll likely be no shortage of intensity – at least from manager John Schneider’s club – over those final four series.
For Toronto, it is one thing to adequately pile up wins against teams you’re supposed to defeat. That should be the bare minimum for a roster of this calibre. But to emerge as legitimate World Series contenders, operating on all cylinders in this current window will be critical.


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