On Monday, the Blue Jays looked like a team that could win the World Series. On Tuesday, they looked like they shouldn’t be anywhere near the playoffs. By Wednesday, they were somewhere in between.
That is the hope, the fascination and the wonder as the Jays’ playoffs begin on Friday. This club is capable of getting to the World Series and almost as capable of losing first round in a wild-card series.
That is the great unknown here for a group that has never really had all these possibilities and personalities before. They are here and there, in and out, so good and occasionally inept depending on the daily circumstance.
They were in a short series two years ago in Tampa, but they weren’t ready for the dim lights of Tropicana Field and whatever came with that. Now, they have a top of a starting rotation that will match anyone they face in a short playoff series. The first round is a best of three. The second round is a best of five. That plays into the Jays’ strengths.
They have Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman as their top two starting pitchers. They have a closer in Jordan Romano equal to or better than any closer they will face (unless they play the Guardians). They have more offensive possibilities, up and down their lineup, than New York or Houston or Cleveland or anyone else can match.
And yet they also have an occasional immaturity, sometimes a lack of focus or attention to detail, that can create doubt about this group.
So we have no idea what to expect — just that anything right now seems possible with the Jays.
THIS AND THAT
Captain John Tavares won’t be ready to start the season with the Maple Leafs, which isn’t good but also isn’t terrible. Consider this: Auston Matthews missed the first three games of last season and the Leafs won two of them. In all, Matthews missed nine games in his Hart Trophy-winning season. The Leafs had a 7-2 won-loss record in the games Matthews didn’t play … The goals young Nick Robertson scored Friday night were the kind that would impress coach Sheldon Keefe, mostly because of the quickness and accuracy of his shot. Keefe lost some faith in Robertson last season rather quickly when he couldn’t hit the net on many of his opportunities and sometimes was wildly wide … The book on Ilya Samsonov: The less busy he is in goal, the better he plays. When he starts chasing the game, that’s when he gets himself in trouble … I understand why Rasmus Sandin didn’t want to sign basically the same contract Timothy Liljegren signed in the off-season. Sandin is more advanced than Liljegren and has greater upside … Mathews is scoring at a pace of 1.12 points per game in his career. Mitch Marner is at 1.06 points per game. At a similar stage, the Hall of Famer Mats Sundin, in a lower-scoring era, was at 1.03 points per game … The most important task for Keefe over the next two weeks: Finding the right partner for Morgan Rielly. It won’t be Jake Muzzin, even if they played together in a recent practice and got too many people excited. The best pairing would be TJ Brodie, but ideally, Keefe would be wise to have Brodie on one pair and Rielly on another … This would drive today’s coaches crazy: All but three players on the Soviet team from ’72 shot left. Funny, the best Russian scorer in history, Alex Ovechkin, is a right-handed shot … Just because Sergei Fedorov could play defence, or just about any position for that matter, while playing for Scotty Bowman doesn’t mean Marner could do it. The odd forward, Brent Burns to name one, has been able to switch positions that way. The odd defenceman, Red Kelly being the best example, was able to do the opposite. Phil Housley could do both rarely comfortably. I could see Marner being a regular forecheck target if he was put on defence for more than the occasional shift.
HEAR AND THERE
It was time to change the name of the Lou Marsh Trophy. It was overtime to change the name of the award for Canada’s Athlete of the Year. So what now? My choices, in no particular order, are to name the honour after Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash or Ferguson Jenkins. I’d be happy with any of those selections … And if the Toronto Star is going to name its award after a Star person, then the Milt Dunnell Trophy would be a fine name but if Milt was still alive, he would hate that idea … It isn’t often a pitcher is the Blue Jays MVP, but this year my vote would go to Manoah, who should also win pitcher of the year … The Blue Jays run differential at +76 is a bit unusual: They are +57 against the Boston Red Sox alone heading into Saturday’s game … Crazy numbers: The 100-plus win Los Angeles Dodgers team is +334. That is nothing compared to the +458 the St. Louis Maroons had in 1884. The Maroons had a 94-19 record that season. You may not remember that … As of Saturday, Aaron Judge trailed Minnesota’s Luis Arraez by one point in batting average with four days left in the MLB season. I’ll admit it: I’m cheering for a Triple Crown for Judge … Last season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit nine more home runs than Judge … Matt Chapman, who may be the best defensive third baseman the Blue Jays have ever had, was at 168 strikeouts heading into Saturday afternoon’s game against the Red Sox. The Jays record is 170, held by Jose Bautista. Chapman should own it by himself by the end of the season … If Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal are healthy for the start of the wild-card round, can’t see a place for Bradley Zimmer on the Jays 26-man playoff roster … If John Schneider is the Blue Jays manager of choice after this season, the club still has to go through the process of interviewing minority candidates. Seems unnecessary from the outside and possibly insulting to those who get interviews if you already know who the manager is … If the Philadelphia Phillies collapse and don’t wind up in a wild-card spot in the National League, I wonder if that means Canadian Rob Thomson won’t be retained as manager.
SCENE AND HEARD
The NFL Players’ Association, a historically toothless group, has fired the doctor that cleared Tua Tagovailoa to return to play against Buffalo and led to him starting Thursday night against Cincinnati. What an unnecessary mess this has been … This seemingly average Argos team is one home win away from going to the Grey Cup, assuming they won’t be caught for first place in the Eastern Division by Montreal. The East, aside from the Argos, has a 13-28 won-loss record … You can’t invent O.G. Anunoby. That’s part of his charm. He was asked on Raptors media day what the most enjoyable thing he did this summer was and after not being sure what to answer, he said: “I guess reading a book.” When asked what book, he didn’t know … Tsuaki Marule, who sang the national anthem in English, French, and Blackfoot on Friday night at Rogers Centre should be a regular across Canada all year long … How out of control is NFL betting in America? Well, in the first three weeks of the season, just under $1 billion was legally wagered on the league in the state of New York. And you have to wonder what the number would be if you included illegal activity and you went national … October and April are my favourite sporting months. October has baseball playoffs and the start of NHL and NBA seasons. April usually has the start of baseball and playoffs in both NHL and NBA, along with The Masters and the conclusion of March Madness … I don’t suspect we’ll see Paul LaPolice as a head coach again in the CFL. He could be back as an offensive coordinator, though … My cable is so slow at home that touchdowns are talked about on Twitter before I see them on my TV screen … Nathan Rourke’s younger brother, Kurtis, is the starting quarterback at Ohio University and has already passed more than 1,000 yards this short season. Both learned to play, early stages, in Burlington and Oakville.
AND ANOTHER THING
Happy Anniversary to The Flintstones, creators of the Happy Anniversary song. The show is one of the few subjects in life in which I can honestly consider myself an expert. It’s No. 62, by the way, in terms of years, which seems an appropriate number these days … Now that the 50th anniversary has passed, I can freely admit this: I’m Team Canada’d out. Nobody loved the ’72 Series more than I did. But between the books, the pages, and pages of newspaper articles, the documentary, the celebrations, the interviews, I’m more than a little numb from it all … When radio broadcasters from the Maple Leafs and Raptors didn’t travel on the road during COVID-19, that made some sense. It doesn’t anymore. Having a Hall of Fame broadcaster like Joe Bowen working from home when the Leafs play on the road is an insult to Bowen and an insult to radio listeners. I completely understand if the underfunded stations don’t want to pay for travel, but then Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment should pay. Paul Jones and Eric Smith need to be with the Raptors, just as Bowen and Jim Ralph need to be with the Leafs. This is the largest city in Canada treating its radio broadcasters like they’re working in Hooterville … Age is catching up to the older brother, Yuli Gurriel, who at 38 had career lows almost across the board this season with the Houston Astros … There are almost silly rumblings about that the NHL is considering a third expansion to Atlanta, which makes zero sense, which is why it might happen … The truth: Frankie Lasagna had no real shot at catching Judge’s 61st home run ball at Rogers Centre unless he had Inspector Gadget arms. He did get a bunch of publicity for himself and his restaurant, though, which I’m told is worth a visit … Happy birthday to Rod Carew (77), Mike Pringle (55), Robbie Ray (31), Glenn Anderson (62), Frederik Andersen (33), Phil Kessel (35), Mark McGwire (59), Don Luce (74), Luca Caputi (34), Cliff Ronning (57), Xander Bogaerts (30), Jacques Martin (70) and Jeff Reardon (67) … And hey, whatever became of Brian Butterfield?
A BIT MUCH CHAMPAGNE, JAYS?
If somehow the Blue Jays make their way to the World Series, which isn’t impossible, they will have had champion spraying celebrations a) to make the playoffs; b) win the wild-card series; c) to win the divisional round and d) win the American League Championship. Which is kind of crazy but baseball doesn’t seem to mind.
That’s four wild clubhouse spraying stuff occasions with goggles on, five if they ever win the thing. Enough champagne to cater a wedding.
And that’s more celebration than Mitch White’s career win total.
When an NHL team or an NBA team finishes fifth or sixth in their conference and qualifies for the post-season, there is no celebration to speak of. It’s expected they make the playoffs. Just as it was expected the Jays would make the playoffs with an additional team added to the post-season schedule and at least half the teams in the American League playing below .500 baseball.
I asked manager John Schneider about this the other day. He said he had never been in an NBA or NHL locker room.
“That’s the best part of baseball,” he explained, “celebrating what you’ve accomplished. You don’t ever want to take anything for granted in this game. Every point that you reached, that was a goal. You should definitely celebrate it.
“We play every day and it’s hard. The guys that play 162 appreciate that you’re one of the few teams standing after that mark. And that’s how it’s always been. I appreciate that. It’s such a long season that you have to take a step back and appreciate where you are.”
It is the way of baseball, so orchestrated that the protective plastic wrapping on the lockers and fancy eye goggles are a built-in part of the celebration.
I go back to last May when the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs. Their celebration was mild. Why? They weren’t anywhere near where they wanted to go. It was one step.
Which is where the Blue Jays are right now — playing for home-field advantage in the opening round.
SIMMONS: A moment to cherish in Toronto as Aaron Judge, a Yankee, hits 61st homer to tie Maris’ record
SIMMONS: Walks stall New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge’s home run chase
WHY JUDGE’S RECORD MATTERS
From the time the Blue Jays were born — and certainly after the Montreal Expos left for Washington — I kind of stopped watching National League baseball. I would tune in on occasion to see something if the Jays or the Yankees or the Red Sox weren’t playing.
But mostly, since 1977, and certainly since I began writing about the Jays in 1987, I have primarily watched and followed American League baseball only. And I suspect many of those who follow baseball in this city have done the same over the years.
This brings us to Aaron Judge, who was sitting at 61 home runs Saturday afternoon with four games to play. He tied the record for most home runs in an American League season on Wednesday night at the Rogers Centre. Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961, which happens to be 61 years ago. The number matters as did the occasion.
And when he hits 62, assuming he does, that will matter even more because it’s the most home runs ever hit in a season in the league I watch — and probably you watch — more than any other. It may not be the all-time record. All that got distorted when Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit between 63 and 73 home runs six different times between 1998 and 2001 — also known as the steroid era.
It took 34 years for someone in baseball to go from Babe Ruth’s total of 60 to the Maris number of 61. It took another 61 years in the AL for someone, in this case Judge, to match that number. Sosa hit 66, 63 and 64 home runs himself in three NL seasons and never once led the league in homers.
You can hang on to Bonds’ record of 73 all you want, but I can’t. The circumstances of that period are too outrageous to be taken seriously.
When Judge hits 62, that will be my record for the league I watch and care about the most.
Sosa happened to hit 64 homers in the American League. It took him five seasons to do that.