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The Blue Jays Crashed Right Out Of The Postseason

Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) watches the Seattle Mariners celebrate as the Toronto Blue Jays fall to the Seattle Mariners 10-9 in game two losing their American League Wild Card series at Rogers Centre in Toronto. October 8, 2022.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A shameless optimist might look at matters this way: Even when you are down seven runs in the second of a best-of-three series and things feel hopeless, a game needn’t be completely lost. MLB’s new wild card format debuted this weekend, swapping the old single-elimination games for a format that more closely approximates a regular season series. No off days, no travel, just wall-to-wall baseball. It rewards starting pitchers who can go long, bullpen depth in their absence, and bread-and-butter managerial strategy. And it’s why, even after Danny Jansen smoked a double down the right-field line to put the Blue Jays up 8-1 over the Seattle Mariners in the bottom of the fifth inning, the optimist might have still seen some opportunity for the Mariners. Not in that game, but the next one. Call it a small victory within the loss. The Jays bullpen had been suspect all season and no match for Seattle’s; make the game a little closer, force Toronto to burn through some relievers, and Sunday’s Game 3 suddenly looks much more winnable.

No one—not even the shameless optimist—could have imagined what actually happened: A big, real victory, no loss required. Seattle came back from the deficit to beat Toronto 10-9 on Saturday, completing a two-game sweep and advancing to the ALDS for the first time since 2001. Theirs was the second-largest comeback win in postseason history (we won’t soon forget that epic 1929 Philadelphia A’s rally from down eight) and the largest on the road.

The Mariners had struggled to get anything going against Jays starter Kevin Gausman, while the Jays had made quick work of the Mariners starter and former Blue Jay Robbie Ray. Gausman gave up three straight singles to start the sixth inning, but his wipeout splitter induced a strikeout and a pop-up to get him mostly out of the mess. Still, Jays manager John Schneider denied Gausman the final out of the inning and pulled Gausman after 95 pitches for lefty reliever Tim Mayza. “Sucks when you’re out of the game and you don’t have any more say in it, right? So you’re essentially just watching and hoping,” Gausman said afterward. He seemed at peace with his manager’s decision, though a Jays fan could reasonably question it.

The switch-hitting Carlos Santana came up to bat next, and with the bases loaded, Schneider prioritized power-avoidance. Mayza’s splits against right-handed batters are poor, but Santana, though he hits lefties better for average, had hit 16 of his 19 home runs this year batting left-handed. He’d also hit Gausman hard his last time up. (In the previous inning, Santana sent a double clanging off the wall, just inches from home run distance.) The strategy, if theoretically sound, didn’t pay off. Santana took the shameless optimist’s advice. A wild pitch from Mayza scored the runner on third, and then Santana socked an improbable homer into left to score three more.

Give these Mariners an inch of hope and they take a mile. The Jays added an insurance run to stretch the lead back to 9-5 in the bottom of the seventh, but a second bullpen screw-up, this time courtesy of Anthony Bass, forced the Jays to bring in All-Star closer Jordan Romano with two on and no outs in the top of the eighth. Romano gave up a single to load the bases, and though he struck the next two batters out, it would not be enough to keep the Mariners from their destiny. “It seems everything that could go wrong did go wrong in a very short period of time,” Schneider said. George Springer, positioned deep in center field, charged hard for a ball hit softly to shallow center. Bo Bichette, recognizing it would be a tough play for Springer, ran for the ball too. The shortstop’s attempt to help proved extremely unhelpful and disastrous. Springer and Bichette crashed into each other, no one made the play, and J.P. Crawford’s “pop-up double” cleared the bases to tie the game. Springer, in and out of the lineup all year with injuries, took the worst of the collision. He left the game on a medical cart, but was well enough to weakly encourage the silent and despairing Toronto fans to keep their spirits up, which they did not. Who could blame them? It was one of the most dispiriting innings you’ll ever see, certainly one of the top two this wild-card weekend.

Cal Raleigh and Adam Frazier both doubled in the ninth inning to put a tenth run on the board. Suddenly, the Jays found themselves down in a game they had not so long ago led by seven. George Kirby, an excellent rookie starter serving as a bullpen luxury for the Mariners this series, came in to pitch the bottom of the ninth. He is the subject of a rather adorable Seattle Times story today, in which Kirby says he was so excited running out of the bullpen he felt like he “probably could’ve hit 105.”

Kirby’s last relief appearance of any kind came in 2018, when he was pitching for the (get this) the Harwich (Massachusetts) Mariners in the Cape Cod collegiate summer league.

“Just to pitch in a postseason game was freaking awesome,” Kirby said. “Whatever Skip (Scott Servais) wants to do with me, I believe in him. And I’m just glad he believed in me.”

Kirby, for the record, did not hit 105, but he did top out at 99 mph — after averaging 95.2 on his four-seam fastball during the regular season.

The Jays, having learned their lesson the hard way, will likely spend the offseason shoring up the bullpen. Vlad Guerrero Jr. has also learned a lesson in never ever ever trying to give cool quotes to the media, for you can only be haunted by them later. Speaking to the press at spring training, he promised an improvement on 2021’s 91-win season. “What we did last year was a trailer. Now you guys are going to see the movie,” he said, hyping up what would ultimately be a 92-win season. The movie was pretty entertaining, even if the twist ending felt unearned and abrupt.