New generation of Blue Jays ready for playoff baseball at Rogers Center

BALTIMORE – Bo Bichette grew up a huge fan of Troy Tulowitzki and even more of a home run fan, so he naturally took an interest in the Toronto Blue Jays, even before he was selected in the second round of the 2016 draft. He watched closely. his back-to-back runs to the American League Championship Series and has since returned to watch the iconic drives of José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación, amazed by how the cameras shook and how the players came off the bench to celebrate.

Six years later, the opportunity to create his own memories when the Blue Jays host Game 1 of a wild-card series on Friday against the Seattle Mariners or Tampa Rays, “is a dream come true,” the star shortstop said.

“I remember watching those games,” he continued Tuesday afternoon, shortly before Game No. 161 rained down for the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, “and it was a chill to think about having the opportunity to play in an environment like that. So, (hosting the wild card) is a dream come true.”

Bichette isn’t the only one anticipating the first postseason game at Rogers Center since Game 5 of the 2016 AL Championship Series, a 3-0 loss that sent Cleveland to the World Series. Although the Blue Jays did appear in the 2020 playoffs, getting swept in two games by the host Tampa Bay Rays, that was more of an asterisk than a proper playoff experience.

In the midst of the pandemic, the circumstances were strange, the stands were empty, and when asked how he would describe the atmosphere of those games, Bichette bluntly replied, “There was none.”

“I wouldn’t say I’ve been a part of the postseason yet,” he added.

The real thing comes Friday, after an absurd traditional Wednesday doubleheader scheduled to make up for Tuesday’s rainout, which is staged because Major League Baseball always strives to play 162 games if conditions are safe and there’s a weather window that allows it.

Plans for everything from workouts for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal to who would pitch were fluid, like the turf at Camden Yards, according to interim manager John Schneider.

Expect Mitch White and Yusei Kikuchi to support each other a lot, Casey Lawrence is among the taxi squad players here and can offer some length, and with several relievers wanting at least a little work to be in shape for Friday, the Blue Jays will look to drive their way through 18 innings.

Everything will be done with a view to optimizing for Friday.

A rain-shortened 5-1 victory over the Orioles on Monday, combined with Seattle’s 4-3 loss to Detroit, clinched the spot for the Blue Jays, who greeted the moment with a series of messages on their chat. group, with Alek Manoah. jumping first, of course.

While qualifying for the playoffs was the priority, securing home-field advantage quickly became the secondary goal.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment since 2017,” right fielder Teoscar Hernandez said. “I saw that in 2015 and 2016 and I want to experience that and this is the opportunity. … It feels great to see that in the past and now you’re going to be able to see it in person. Knowing that all those people are rooting for you and your teammates is a special feeling.”

While the postseason will be very familiar to the likes of George Springer, Matt Chapman, Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Gausman, Ross Stripling and Jose Berrios, it will be much newer for most of the club. The experience cannot be rushed, and while it can be overrated, what it can sometimes do is normalize the abnormal, which is part of the value Schneider sees in hosting.

“I just feel like you’re comfortable in your surroundings and your clubhouse and your apartment, the condo, whatever, the family, all those kinds of things,” Schneider said. “You are familiar with the routine. When everything is magnified and additional things are happening, you’re doing it in your stadium with your fans and your clubhouse and people that you’re familiar with. I think that kind of extra stuff goes a little under the radar, but then you put the fans on top of it and it’s huge.”

Also huge is the impact of the new postseason format on its first season.

Although the Blue Jays would have qualified for the postseason even under last year’s system, they would have guaranteed themselves only one game, rather than a best-of-three, to advance to the division series. The new system also left assured teams with something to play for even after the fact, with the top two division winners earning direct byes to the division series.

Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and CEO, who is also on baseball’s competition committee, was a big supporter of the push to get a 12-team playoff during collective bargaining agreement discussions in the spring and ” Actually, I wanted to expand it even a bit more.” a little further,” he said.

“I love the idea that came out before the best team (in the playoffs) chose who to play against. I thought that was a good idea,” Shapiro added. “But it’s another reflection that we continue to think differently about the game and are open-minded about how we grow the game and engage fan bases. Having more fan bases in August and September, and in April, with a tangible reason to believe that there is a chance that they can play, I think it was achieved. It was also important not to diminish what it means to win the division, not to diminish what it means to win more games. This has done that. This, combined with a more balanced calendar next year, is a sweeter spot to get to.”

The balanced schedule will go into effect next season and should level the playing field in the competition for wild card spots.

Stripling, who as a representative of the Blue Jays players’ union at the time was part of the CBA negotiations, said the players understood that bigger playoffs were always going to be part of the deal, but “we wanted it to be a system that made sense to us. .”

So far so good.

“It’s exactly what we wanted,” Stripling said. “We really didn’t like any 14-team structure that we put together. Some had ghost wins, if you remember, we had teams that started with a 1-0 series lead on one of the proposals we submitted. Twelve always felt better.

“We incentivized teams to keep winning, even after securing a spot. You get three games in this wild card at your home field if you have the best record, that’s a big deal. The byes are a little weird, but they’re not so long that a headline completely rusts or gets out of sync or out of its rut. So it seems like he hit everything we needed, which is expanding the playoffs, getting another team and not getting to a game after 162, everybody hated that.”

Well, maybe not the 2016 Blue Jays, who advanced to the division series on Encarnacion’s epic home run against the Orioles, a moment rooted in Bichette’s memory as well as franchise lore. On Friday, a new generation of Blue Jays gets their October turn.

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