The 2023 Blue Jays Season Retrospective – Part IV: Swept by the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs, Jose Berrios pulled early, and more
By Evan Stack1 month ago
With 2023 winding to an end, let’s take this time to look back on the year that was for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Part I looked at Spring Training and the team’s exciting April and then Part II dug into the struggles with the American League East and Alek Manoah’s demotion to the Florida Complex League, and Part III went through Manoah’s return, the All-Star break, and the trade deadline. Finally, in Part IV, we’ll look at the stretch drive and the playoffs.
The stretch vs. sub-.500 teams
Sitting at 70-58 and 1.5 games out of a playoff spot on August 25th, the Blue Jays were set to begin a 15-game stretch against opponents all with losing records. These were the Cleveland Guardians, the Washington Nationals, the Colorado Rockies, the Oakland A’s, and the Kansas City Royals. The Tampa Bay Rays had a similar type of schedule to begin their season when they started 13-0, and this was Toronto’s opportunity to gain some wins and pick on the bottom of the MLB’s standings.
Toronto wound up going 10-5 over this stretch, and it put them in the second Wild Card spot for the time being. There were still some frustrating losses – I understand they’re all MLB teams, but losing to the Oakland A’s because of a Kevin Smith game-winning 3-run home run was not an entertaining experience – but sweeping the Royals at the conclusion of that time period made the record look a little better.
The Blue Jays stayed relatively healthy all season, but they lost multiple players to injuries during the home stretch of the season. One of the most impactful injuries was to Danny Jansen, who, to his credit, fought through being hit in the hand on several occasions during his at-bats. Unfortunately, it happened one too many times, as being hit by a pitch against the Rockies on September 1st moved Jansen to the IL for the remainder of the season. Alejandro Kirk was relegated to catch the majority of the remaining games, with Tyler Heineman serving as the backup.
Bo Bichette suffered a right quad strain, the second 10-day IL stint for him during the second half of the season. Matt Chapman was also IL-bound after jamming his middle finger while returning a weight to its rack in the weight room. Bichette and Chapman being out forced John Schneider to devise multiple looks to the infield defence. Ernie Clement received a ton of playing time at short, with Santiago Espinal filling in at multiple positions and Cavan Biggio getting some time at third.
Don’t mess with Texas
The above series’ set up a four-game showdown with the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre. This was as close to a playoff series as it was going to get – even Jeff Passan on Sportsnet’s Blair and Barker was in awe of the pitching matchups in the series, and referred to it as a “playoff series in the middle of September”.
If it was an actual playoff series, this was a sweep of utter domination, as Texas outplayed Toronto in every facet of all four games. The Blue Jays were outscored 35-9 across the series, outhit 44-23, outhit with RISP 15-4, and out-homered 8-3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette combined to post a 4-for-30 stat line throughout the series, while Corey Seager went 9-for-17 with a home run, 5 RBIs, and four doubles.
In many ways, this was a missed opportunity for the Blue Jays. Texas had just fallen out of a playoff spot for the first time since April, Adolis Garcia was out with injury, and they were in the middle of a 6-16 stretch. The Blue Jays had a chance to kick Texas while they were down, and instead, they helped them up. With the series sweep, Texas moved into the second Wild Card spot while Toronto fell 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.
While the season was not over yet, that performance left fans who attended the games very disheartened. Probably the loudest boos of the season were showered onto the field during a couple of the games, and frustration set in for coaches and players as well. John Schneider had the following interaction with a reporter after the series finale – it was a professional response, but you could tell he didn’t appreciate the question.
Reporter: “John, Trevor Richards has allowed 17 runs in his last 9 and a third, how do you continue to bring him into games and game situations?”
Schneider: “I think he has 94 strikeouts in about 60 innings this year.”
It seemed like all hope was lost for the playoffs, but they reeled everyone back in by winning five in a row against the Red Sox and the Yankees directly after the Texas series. The weekend tilt against the Red Sox featured a pair of walk-offs, Whit Merrifield’s RBI swinging bunt ended an extra innings affair on September 16th that included a game-tying double from Daulton Varsho and multiple base running errors. Matt Chapman’s walk-off double on September 17th came just one day after being pinch-hit for late by Cavan Biggio.
The AL Wild Card Series and the Jose Berrios debacle
Thanks to Toronto’s first series win at Tropicana Field since 2021 and the Seattle Mariners losing just enough games down the stretch, the Blue Jays clinched their second consecutive playoff spot, and would face the Minnesota Twins in the #3 vs. #6 American League Wild Card series.
Although winning the AL Central was not the most impressive feat, the Twins were not to be overlooked by any means. They boasted a very distinguished 1-2 punch in their starting rotation in Pablo Lopez and Sonny Gray, which was perfect for a best-of-3 series. They also possessed one of the most talented rookies in all of baseball, Royce Lewis, however, he was questionable coming into the series with a hamstring injury.
Game 1 – Lewis was healthy enough to play, but Twins manager Rocco Baldelli pencilled him in as the DH. The hamstring proved to be in great shape as he hit two home runs off of Kevin Gausman in the first three innings, giving the Twins a 3-0 lead. Lewis accounted for two of the three hits that Gausman gave up in his four innings of work, but he also walked three batters and it drove his pitch count up.
Following Gausman, the Jays got four innings of scoreless baseball from their bullpen, but once again, it was up to their offence to make up any ground. Despite outhitting the Twins 6-5, the Blue Jays could only muster one extra-base hit, left nine runners on base, and went 2-for-9 with RISP. They left a potential run on the base paths in the 4th inning with runners on first and second with two outs; Kevin Kiermaier lined a ground ball sharply to Jorge Polanco at third, but Polanco couldn’t field it cleanly. Noticing this, Bo Bichette (the runner at second) made the turn at third and attempted to steal home plate, but the ball wound up in Carlos Correa’s hands, and Correa made a great play to throw Bichette out at home.
Kiermaier supplied their lone run of the day, still, singling in Bichette in the 6th inning. That was the only run of the day for the Blue Jays, and they went on to lose the game 3-1.
Game 2 – Oh boy, this was the talk of the baseball world.
Let me just go ahead and get the comments about the offence out of the way. The Blue Jays lost this game 2-0, once again outhitting Minnesota, but leaving nine runners on base. They clearly had their opportunities, but they failed to cash in on them. The two moments that stood out the most were Vladimir Guerrero Jr. getting picked off at second base with two outs and runners on second and third in the fifth inning and Matt Chapman missing a 3-run double by inches in the sixth inning.
The real meat and potatoes of this game was Jose Berrios being pulled after throwing three scoreless innings and only 47 pitches. Berrios was facing his former team, a team that traded him at the 2021 trade deadline for two of Toronto’s top prospects. After a successful bounce-back season, the stars aligned for Berrios to keep his former team from advancing to the next round.
Berrios looked as good as he had all season. He was composed, his slurve was un-hittable, and his fastball/sinker was being located with precision. However, multiple times throughout the first couple of frames, TV cameras panned to Toronto’s bullpen with clips of multiple left-handed relievers warming up. Toronto was teasing the idea of going to the ‘pen early, and they finally did it in the fourth inning after Berrios walked Royce Lewis to lead off the inning.
They went to Yusei Kikuchi, who immediately loaded the bases and allowed the lone two runs of the day, with one of them being charged to Berrios. Admittedly, it was a tough spot for Kikuchi to be in, he hadn’t come out of the bullpen all season. The bottom line, however, is that the Blue Jays robbed Berrios of one of the biggest starts of his career. To his credit, he handled it with class and professionalism and went to the dugout to support his team through the rest of the game.
There was a vast number of people who criticized the move, including ESPN’s Michael Kay, who said, “I understand that there is a collaboration between front office and things like that, but I truly believe, Alex [Rodriguez], that that move was made sometime in the middle of the night as he’s looking at a computer spreadsheet.”
Post-game and post-mortem comments
On pulling Jose Berrios:
John Schneider – “We had a few different plans in place. Jose was aware of it. He had electric stuff, you know? Tough to take him out, you know, I think with the way that they’re constructed, you want to utilize your whole roster. It didn’t work out…You can sit here and second guess me, second guess the organization, second guess anybody. I get that, you know, I get that. It’s tough, and it didn’t work out for us today or yesterday.”
Ross Atkins – “Those meetings are John Schneider’s meetings. He has a group of individuals that he prepares with every day. His process, routine, his preparation was no different that day. The group is the staff that’s on the field, it’s not the front office. I do not attend these meetings, and I certainly do not make those decisions. When that decision occurred, I found out about it when you did.”
Whit Merrifield – “I hated it, frankly…it’s not what cost us the game, but it’s the kind of baseball decisions that are taking away from managers and baseball, at this stage of the game.”
Jose Berrios – “Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t control that [the reasoning for being removed from the game]. Like I said, I did my best my first 12 batters, so, it is what it is.”
In his press conference, Ross Atkins also addressed his appreciation for all of the outgoing free agents, and it sounded a lot like they were not going to be brought back. Off camera, Atkins made sure to specify that they would absolutely look to bring them back if given the opportunity. Atkins would further announce that John Schneider would be back for the 2024 season.
Other miscellaneous topics
Paul Dejong DFA’d – On August 21st, trade deadline pickup Paul DeJong was designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays only 20 days after his acquisition. DeJong’s release came as the corresponding move to Bo Bichette being activated from the 10-day IL after he suffered a right knee injury in late July. While a majority of DeJong’s purpose was to fill the hole left by Bichette’s injury, it certainly seemed like a quick trigger on a 30-year-old player with (then) 6 years of MLB experience. Furthermore, the Blue Jays gave up a prospect to get him.
Nonetheless, while it did catch some people off guard, DeJong struggled immensely with the Blue Jays at the plate. He finished 3-for-44 with one RBI and 18 strikeouts. He didn’t record an error at shortstop which was convenient to have, but for a lineup already struggling to produce runs, Toronto was hoping he could tune into the power he had shown in the past.
DeJong was scooped by the San Francisco Giants shortly after his release, and he naturally went 3-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs in his first game with them.
Joey Bats inducted to the Level of Excellence – On August 12th, the Blue Jays inducted legend Jose Bautista into the Level of Excellence prior to their Saturday afternoon matchup with the Chicago Cubs. It was an afternoon filled with tears, gifts, and appearances from several former players and coaches, Bautista’s name was implemented in its rightful spot – amongst the Blue Jays greats.
Cole Ragans caught slipping – During the aforementioned run of inferior opponents, the Blue Jays did face quite the force in Royals starting pitcher Cole Ragans. Ragans was dealt from the Rangers to the Royals in exchange for Aroldis Chapman, and he took off from there. Ragans entered his September 10th matchup with the Blue Jays on a 21-inning streak of allowing zero runs, and he silenced Toronto through the first five frames.
However, in the 6th inning with runners on first and second, Ragans threw three consecutive wild pitches (and slipped off the mound on two of them) that allowed two runners to score and tie the game. Toronto would go on to win the game 5-2.
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