The wheels on the crashing Blue Jays bus go … right over manager John Schneider.
That was the not-so-subtle message delivered by general manager Ross Atkins in his Thanksgiving Weekend wrap up on a season that slammed to an end this past week in Minneapolis.
The plan to have starter Jose Berrios removed in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the Twins that prematurely spat the Jays into the off-season wasn’t Atkins’ mess – a point he made early and often in his version of the post-season show.
“I do not attend those meetings and I certainly do not make those decisions,” Atkins said at the Rogers Centre, talking about the plan concocted to have lefty starter Yusei Kikuchi come in as a reliever. “It was obviously very clear we had a strategy to potentially deploy. There was no plan to concretely deploy that. John Schneider made that decision. That’s what occurred.”
Asked multiple times whether he felt Schneider had made a mistake, Atkins danced the GM dance and wouldn’t stand up for his man as it pertained to the specific decision fans will be talking about for years.
“That was a unique strategy,” Atkins said in describing a plan he was well aware of and helped craft – bringing in Kikuchi to face a portion of the Twins lineup the team felt would bring success. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that.”
Even if it was all Schneider’s call – unlikely as it was – when asked if he thought a manager finishing his first full season in the major leagues might feel some unsaid pressure from a meddling front office, Atkins flexed.
“I have 100% confidence that it was not front office pressure and I would love for you to talk to John Schneider about that,” Atkins said.
(Wouldn’t we all, preferably with some truth serum or a mitt full of IPAs to loosen the tongue.)
As much as Atkins wanted to walk back influence of the baseball operations department on the call, he wasn’t done, though he did say Schneider will return as manager for 2024. In fact, the GM suggested he had the same reaction as Jays fans choking on their popcorn when Kikuchi trotted in from the Target Field bullpen.
“I was surprised he was coming out, but I understand the strategy,” Atkins said. “I understood that it would be uncomfortable. I thought it was a very courageous decision.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. It was, like the season and especially the brisk sweep at the hands of the Twins, a lot to digest. And there will be plenty of explaining to re-establish the trust of Jays players both pissed and perplexed by the way it went down.
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The best defence the GM could muster on Saturday was the savvy move to shift the barrel of the gun at the most under-achieving component of his team – the offence.
Atkins isn’t wrong, of course, as a miserable batting order could manage just one run over two games, a blight that carried over from the regular season.
But should it excuse the decision to move Berrios from a game he was dominating in the fashion that presumably was expected when the team signed him to a seven-year, $131 million US contract?
Over to you, Ross.
“I’m not going to get into second guessing,” Atkins said (not for the first or last time) when asked specifically if he had issue with the Berrios decision. “I feel good about our chances to win that game based on allowing two runs.
“It wasn’t the result we wanted, but we don’t feel run prevention was the issue.”
It certainly appears that the hope of the Jays was that having the Atkins briefing on the Saturday of a treasured Canadian long weekend would lower the volume on the criticism. It doesn’t work that way, however, especially given the amplified angst of a fan base that soared attendance to Jays home games past three million in 2023 and now feels jilted.
And what of the lingering repercussions? Multiple Jays players were not amused with the decision on Berrios and said as much – on and off the record. Again, Atkins was quick to the defence when asked how the rest of the starting rotation would take the news.
“I talked to all of those starters after the game,” Atkins said. “They were aware of the plan before the game. I think what caught people off guard was how well Jose was pitching and that’s what caught some players off guard.”
It was a move that resonated around the baseball world and could have lingering effects for a franchise that has somehow regressed amid inflated expectations. There will be a need for trust to be rebuilt in the clubhouse and perhaps a stronger sales pitch to free agents.
Atkins, meanwhile, admitted that the loss was “extremely painful” a feeling that might linger.
“Walking into that clubhouse (on Friday), the smell of stale champagne was not a good scent for me. It has been a very difficult couple of days.”
It wasn’t the only stench.