Written by Nick Dika, Andrew Munn, and Richard Lee-Sam
Evil Empire Once Again
The fall of 2017 was a strange one for Blue Jays fans. It was the first year in the last three that our favorite team wasn’t in the American League Championship series. And it was the first year in the last three that the New York Yankees were.
Last fall I found myself doing something I hardly ever do: empathizing with the Yankees. With Toronto on the outside looking in, the Astros and Yankees squared off in what was a very entertaining seven game series.
The Yankees weren’t expected to be there. They weren’t even expected to contend. But when the team’s young and mostly homegrown core began to develop faster than anticipated, Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on some midseason trades that fortified the team’s pitching staff and saw the Yankees easily capture the first wild card position.
As much as it was the Yankees, it wasn’t quite the enemy that I was used to. The team was young, fun to watch (aside from their closer) and mashing. It wasn’t filled with marquee free agent acquisitions like the team that won the World Series in 2009. It’s hard to loathe Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and twilight era CC Sabathia the same way you loathe Alex Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and peak prime CC Sabathia. Not every Blue Jays fan was falling for the Yankees charm, but you could probably understand why someone like me was.
Ultimately, the Yankees fell to the eventual world champion Astros. And then the offseason happened. The Yankees re-signed one of the Jays’ top free agent targets in CC Sabathia. They acquired Giancarlo Stanton from Miami without giving up much of anything. The appreciation for Brian Cashman’s savvy and shrewd moves has given way to frustration.
Then, in mid-March, they took advantage of a buyer’s free agent market and shored up their infield by signing Neil Walker and trading for Brandon Drury. They did this all while staying under the luxury tax and positioning themselves for a major shopping spree next winter when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon and Josh Donaldson will all hit the free agent market.
This is a Yankees team that wants for nothing. They’ve got talent up and down the major league roster, a full cupboard of prospects waiting in the wings and in true Yankee form, all the money in the world to spend.
Just like that the plucky upstart Yankees were the Evil Empire once again. But the reality was that they were always evil. I let my emotions (and a couple seasons of the team only marginally contending) get the best of me. I couldn’t see the forest for all the trees.
The Yankees will always be evil and devoid of any redeemable quality. It’s my duty as a Blue Jays fan to never forget it. I won’t let Aaron Judge or anyone else trick me into thinking otherwise. I won’t make that mistake again. The Yankees are and will always be the Evil Empire.
Starting Off on the Right Foot
Today marks the second time in four years that the Blue Jays will take on the Yankees on Opening Day. While Toronto will be looking for a similar result to the 6-1 win that played out back in 2015, they won’t be able to lean on their then-unstoppable ace Drew Hutchison to come out victorious over Masahiro Tanaka this time around.
This year’s matchup will showcase two pitchers who are making their first Opening Day starts at two very different points in their careers, with flame-throwing right-hander Luis Severino taking on the ever-effective and reliable southpaw J.A. Happ. These two have faced off against each other before, with the most recent a rather memorable late-September meeting that saw the benches clear due to beanballs.
Severino’s performance has come a long way since then, as he was at the end of what was supposed to be his first full year in the big leagues as a starter. Instead, he struggled mightily as part of the rotation, and spent much of the year shuttling to and from AAA and pitching out of the bullpen. That seems like forever ago now, as Severino earned this year’s Opening Day start through a remarkable 2017 campaign where the right-hander hurled 193.1 innings with a 2.98 ERA and 230 strikeouts.
While sometimes the reasons for a pitcher finally putting it altogether are ambiguous, it was well documented throughout the 2017 season that Severino’s re-discovered changeup had a profound impact on his success. By increasing the separation in velocity between his change and his fastball, Severino gained confidence in the pitch and used it to round up a dangerous repertoire that he leaned on all the way to third place in AL Cy Young voting.
As daunting as it is going up against a young ace like Severino, the Blue Jays may be able to thrive today as historically they have hit rather well against the right-hander. Even during Severino’s breakout 2017 campaign, the Blue Jays managed to score 7 runs in 12.2 innings off of him, including a game in which he was pulled in the 6th after giving up five runs in early May.
Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Josh Donaldson, and Devon Travis have all put up good numbers against Severino in the past, especially in the power department, combining to slug .667 against the 24-year old. Here’s to hoping that familiarity with one of the American League’s best pitchers leads to some more Opening Day success for the Blue Jays, and sets the tone for an entertaining campaign.
A Crucial Season Series
The Blue Jays embark on a year where nobody’s expecting much outside of being in the wildcard conversation. Pundits all over the United States have already deemed this a two-horse race between two well-oiled machines from Boston and New York before the gun has even gone off. But the underdogs north of the border are in a position throw a wrench into everybody’s Red Sox and Yankees pennant race fantasies by playing up to their levels in the 38 times that they meet those two goliaths. Competing for the American League East crown is something beyond the wildest fantasies of even the most naïve Blue Jays supporter, but a good showing in the season series against both of those teams might just put that little spark of hope into everybody’s minds.
This is more than just playing spoiler; the difference between winning and losing a season series against the Yankees could be the difference between putting pressure on the division leaders or listlessly limping into the finish line of another lost season. Last year, they fell flat on their face and needed to rely on other teams to even begin to fuel their delusional playoff dreams.
If the Blue Jays want to be contenders for any playoff spot, all of these divisional games are huge, but more so when the two teams you’re supposed to be chasing possesses the power to leave you in the dust by the all-star break.
At the very least, you solidify yourselves as a wildcard team at the end of the year. With luck, you’re unfurling at least one more banner. In sports, 38 games are usually nothing more than just a small sample size, but a strong showing and stealing a few series against the Bronx Bombers and the Red Sox could end up paying dividends come October.
It all starts today.
Lead Photo © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports