The modest goal for any baseball fan base starts with the overused-yet-admirable aim for their team to get in position to play meaningful September baseball.
Of course, that status can come in many forms and levels of ambition while often ending up an altered version of what was originally projected and planned.
Take the 2015 Blue Jays, who electrified the city (and, in fact, much of Canada) with a run that still has aftershocks felt today in the form of the massive crowds that have filled the Rogers Centre all season. The rise in popularity from that thrill-a-minute team ended decades of waiting.
In another form, there was 2021, where a rebuilt team that appeared to be the young guns of MLB fought gamely only to be eliminated on the final day of the season. The end result may have been excruciating, but also was fun.
Then came 2022 and a Jays team that took the next step, locking down the top wild-card spot in what was undeniably a season of progress — until it ended with a thud in a two-game sweep at the hands of the Mariners when the playoffs began.
So let’s flip the calendar page to September 2023, shall we?
When the Jays return to action following Thursday’s off day, a dramatically different form of late-season drama awaits.
Call it nervous excitement. Call it anxiousness. Call it desperation to salvage a season in which sky-high expectations have not been met. Few would have expected this talented team with an elite pitching staff to be 2.5 games out of the American League’s final wild-card spot, but here we are.
To their credit, most around the team are acknowledging the disappointment. Frustration was apparent during a recent 3-3 home stand against Cleveland and Washington, a pair of teams with losing records that should have been handled with greater aplomb..
For months now, the Jays have been in a holding pattern on the tarmac, as if awaiting clearance for takeoff.
“I think we’ve all been waiting for it,” starter Chris Bassitt said this week. “I know talking to other guys on other teams that the league is kind of waiting for it to happen. Hopefully it does.
“If we put it together, I don’t think there’s a better team in the big leagues. I really don’t.”
Such declarations — which we’ve heard often from Jays players this season — have yet to be proven, as the standings attest. And with 28 games remaining, talk of expected outcomes and other forms of projection ring more hollow.
Quite simply, it’s go time. And I know you don’t want to hear it, but never has there been a softer slate of opponents than what awaits over the next nine games.
“Every game is a must-win from here on out,” Bassitt said, talking not literally but of the mindset his 73-61 team must have. “I know there’s a lot of pressure on us and on a lot of teams, but overall it’s just get the job done.
“You can say it’s pressure, but at the same time this is why we signed up to play for this team. It’s exciting to me. This is what we wanted. We wanted to be in the hunt.”
Safe to say they’d much rather be the hunted at this point. We all remember spring training, where the daily avowals from the Jays promised attention to detail in the hope that business would be taken care of long before September arrived.
What about that, we asked Schneider this week.
“It’s baseball,” the manager said. “Around the league, there’s a lot of good teams and expectations are set at the beginning of the season. Either you meet it, you fall short of it, or you exceed it.”
Exceeding expectations would have been running away with the AL East, a pursuit that basically hasn’t existed since the first week of the season.
Meeting them would have been sitting in a position to challenge for that division title with a comfortable high wild-card slot as a backup.
Now, it’s fighting just to get there and so begins a month that can be the most entertaining in professional sports. Using Wednesday as an example, the Texas Rangers had the bases loaded in the 10th, but failed to score and ultimately lost in the bottom half of the inning to the New York Mets.
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So what will it take?
By now, any fan that has paid more than passing attention to this team knows there is no such thing as a soft spot in the schedule. That said, the Jays will start the new month with three games in Denver against the worst team in the National League, followed by three in Oakland against the worst team in the AL. If opportunity ever did knock, it continues when the team returns home for three more against the second-worst team in their league, the Royals.
A 7-2 run against those three meek opponents would at least show that the Jays mean business — and quite possibly would return control of their destiny.
“We firmly believed from the start of the season that we’re going to be in a playoff race and that’s exactly where we are,” Schneider said in offering a sunny side up view of his team’s predicament. “We do have a little bit of extra work to do because of what has happened, but all we can control is going forward.”