This Week in Blue Jays: The Highlights and Lowlights of 2016

After six months of baseball, it has come down to this.

Game 162.

After all the elation and frustration, the hopefulness and heartache, the fate of the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays has come down to the final game. A win today means the Jays will host the wild card game on Tuesday night. Should they lose, and the worst scenario pending the outcome of other relevant games and the worst they can do is play a game 163 Monday night for a do-or-die shot at a second straight postseason berth.

In all truthfulness, the Jays’ season should not have to rest on the outcome of three different games today. Having begun September with a two-game lead over the Boston Red Sox for first in the AL East, the Jays have found themselves in such a precarious situation due to an unbelievable number of missed opportunities this past month.  Too many times, the Jays have failed to capitalize on RISP situations, while an overburdened bullpen has blown leads, including in five of their past seven games. Had the Jays won two of three versus the Orioles last week, they would have locked up the wild card game rather than fighting for their playoff lives while watching the out-of-town scoreboard.

So many of those disappointing losses loom large now.

But, with their backs against the proverbial wall, the Jays gutted out a victory in Boston last night to ensure that, at the very least, they will play one more game after today.

It’s a far different feeling than last season, when the Jays simply steamrolled the competition and the final games were just a prelude to the postseason. It is my contention that, had last season not played out the way it did, fans would be elated at the position in which this team now finds itself. Instead, for many, it feels like a letdown. Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, there is no doubt about it: this season has been quite a ride. Here are just a few of the highs and the lows.

Elation and Hopefulness

1.    Josh Donaldson’s Hat Trick

Wearing a snappy red uniform in honour of Canadian Baseball Day, reigning MVP Josh Donaldson treated a sold-out crowd to the rare baseball hat trick, lifting the Jays to a 9-6 win over the Twins. Jubuliant fans celebrated in the most Canadian of ways – by showering the Bringer of Rain with their ball caps. Despite the rarity of the feat, Donaldson was the second Blue Jays to hit three home runs in a game. Michael Saunders had his own hat trick on June 17th in Baltimore, and it’s a shame it didn’t happen in front of the home-town crowd – it would have been awfully cool for the British Columbia native to be the recipient of such a Canadian tribute.

2.    Rain Delay Comeback in New York

Had the Blue Jays crushed the competition through the final stretch of the season, the rain delayed comeback victory in New York on August 17th may have been looked back upon as the watershed moment. After falling behind 6-0, the sky opened up and the rain poured down, sending the game into a 42-minute delay. Once the rain had passed, the Jays stormed back with twelve unanswered runs, including four home runs. The offensive outburst was reminiscent of the 2015 Jays and provided fans with their “Nap Together” moment of 2016.

3. Martin and Saunders Make History

Russell Martin and Michael Saunders made history on May 25th when the two became the first Canadians to hit home runs in the same game the team’s history – Martin with a solo shot in the sixth and Saunders with a two-run blast in the seventh (Martin also hit a two-run dinger that inning). It also marked the return of Devon Travis, who went knocked his first hit of the season, going 1-for-4 with a run scored.

Frustration and Heartache

1.    Home Opener

The defending AL East champions played their home opener in front of a sold-out raucous crowd eager to watch their team defend the pennant. Ahead 7-2 thanks to a Josh Donaldson grand slam in the fourth inning, it truly felt as though this team would head out on the same trajectory as the year before. But, the bullpen could not close the deal, blowing a save opportunity for the third game in row in what could almost now be seen as a harbinger of things to come.

2.    Canada Day

The Jays played the second-longest game in franchise history against Cleveland this past Canada Day, a 19-inning  affair that got off to an auspicious start, when Edwin Encarnacion and John Gibbons were tossed from the game for arguing balls and strikes in the first inning (Russell Martin was later ejected as well). Deadlocked at one run apiece and desperate for relievers, John Gibbons called up Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney to pitch late in the game. As unusual as it is to see position players pitch, it is even more rare for one to pitch in a high-leverage situation. Amidst cheers from the sold-out crowd, Goins pitched a scoreless eighteenth inning. After an eight-pitch warm-up, Barney made his pitching debut in the nineteenth. Though he did strike out Mike Napoli, he ultimately surrendered the go-ahead run, resulting in a devastating 2-1 loss.

3.     Inside-the-Park Home Run

The Jays suffered a shocking loss in Cleveland on August 19th in a game that had all the elements of their worst games of the season – a lack of offense, a blown save and poor defense. Taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, closer Roberto Osuna first surrendered a game-tying home run. That brought Tyler Naquin to the plate, who hit a fly ball of the top of the wall in right-centre field, out of reach of a leaping Michael Saunders. The ball bounced away and was finally chased down by Melvin Upton, Jr., who seemingly was not backing up the play. By then, it was too late.

Whatever happens today – and past today – the one thing that has remained consistent during this season of inconsistency has been the fan support. Jays fans flocked to the ballpark in droves, surpassing 3 million in attendance. So, to the fans of this team: forget the first 161 for now. Just enjoy today. Celebrate the excitement and mayhem of game 162. Be hopeful for what is to come. There will be time to dissect the rest when it is all over.

Quick Hits:

  • As the end of the season draws to a close, R.A. Dickey realizes that his time in Toronto – and in baseball – may have come to an end. Relegated to the sidelines for the last few weeks and unlikely to be named to the playoff roster (should there be one), Dickey says that his new role is to be the best teammate he can possibly be, while being ready for whatever is asked of him, though he knows that opportunity may not come. It is my hope that Jays fans, regardless of how they felt every time Dickey took the mound, will remember him for, at the very least, his stellar second half of that magical 2015 season.
  • As much as his demeanor remains fixed on the mound, J.A. Happ is both fiercely intense and competitive. And, although his disposition has not changed since his first stint in Toronto, the difference between Happ then and now is that this time around, Happ knows he’s good. And now, after being in the Cy Young conversation for much of the season, so does the rest of the baseball world.
  • A somber Marco Estrada addressed the media following his final start of the season Friday night, who expressed a desire to get his back healed and come back healthy for next year. Despite some tough sledding in August, Estrada has much to be proud of – he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball the last two years and will be a valuable part of this rotation moving forward. This, to me, is has been the one true shining light this season – the starting rotation has excelled beyond all expectations. If there is something to be hopeful for with regards to next season, it’s this.

Lead Photo: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

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