TORONTO — It’s September and there is meaningful baseball in Toronto. The Blue Jays are in the thick of a tight American League wild-card race, though three straight losses to the Texas Rangers, including Wednesday’s 10-0 defeat, have put them back on the outside looking in.
In theory, Rogers Centre crowds and the broader fan base should be buzzing with the anticipation of what potential playoff baseball could mean for the team. In reality, it’s been anything but that.
This team, and this weird, confounding, disappointing season have exhausted fans more than it’s excited them. Sporadic boos could be heard throughout Wednesday night as the Blue Jays walked off the field after their latest uncompetitive loss.
“They expect us to win and that’s fair, everybody understands that,” George Springer said when asked about the fans’ displeasure. “There’s nobody that wants to win more than us in this locker room. And, I don’t think it’s for lack of effort. I know that the guys in here are trying. We’re doing our best, but it may not seem that way because of the result, but at the end of the day, it’s understandable. Guys expect to play better and I know the fans do, too.”
A quick scan through social media shows a fan base whose feelings toward the team seem to range from mad to sad or, maybe worst of all, apathetic. Meanwhile, the Rogers Centre has experienced lacklustre attendance this week. On Monday, there was a season-low 23,451 in attendance. It rebounded to 30,479 on Tuesday thanks to the team’s popular Loonie Dogs promotion, but it dropped down to 25,495 on Wednesday night. Early September, when school returns, tends to be a tougher ticket to sell, but given the stakes of this series, it’s still alarming to see so many empty seats.
It’s hard to fault the no-shows, however. The Blue Jays have given their fans very little to cheer about in three listless games in what was dubbed their biggest series of the season, a four-game set against a Rangers club that arrived trailing the Blue Jays by 1 1/2 games in the wild-card standings. Those tables have completely turned now with the Rangers up by 1 1/2 games and holding down the second wild-card spot, while the Seattle Mariners lead the Blue Jays by a game for the third and final spot.
Even if the Blue Jays win on Thursday night, with ace Kevin Gausman on the mound, and avoid what would be a hugely deflating sweep, their performance this series hasn’t been near good enough. Frankly, it’s looked like only one of these teams was seriously vying for a postseason position outside of a few back-and-forth innings early in Monday’s game.
The pitching, which has been a pillar of strength all year, has faltered. It’s possible what’s been one of MLB’s best staffs is regressing at the worst time after carrying the team most of the season. The Blue Jays have played so many low-scoring and close games this season, it’s reasonable to believe those high-stress innings have taken a toll on arms.
The offence, meanwhile, has been a no-show, which has been their recurring act all season. The Blue Jays have been outscored 26-7 in three games. The Rangers have out-hit the Blue Jays 32-19 and out-homered them 6-2. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, the Blue Jays’ two best hitters, are a combined 1-for-23 in the first three games and that one hit was an infield single from Guerrero in the first inning on Wednesday.
Asked what Rangers starter Jordan Montgomery was doing against their lineup, Blue Jays manager John Schneider said, “He was locating down in the zone and we didn’t adjust. Simple as that.”
Meanwhile, Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi, who had been having a strong second half, has stumbled in a few starts recently, including against the Rangers. The left-hander allowed a season-high-tying six runs on five hits over five innings with two walks and three strikeouts. Kikuchi allowed two home runs, the most he’s given up in a start since June 4.
Kikuchi first got into trouble in the fourth inning. The left-hander issued a leadoff walk to Corey Seager, before giving up a single to right fielder Robbie Grossman. A batter later, catcher Jonah Heim drove in a run. Then Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe hit a three-run home run to centre field that put Texas up 4-0.
In assessing his outing, Kikuchi said, “I didn’t do my job…The balls caught a little bit too much of the plate, so I blame myself.”
Considering the Blue Jays offensive struggles, a four-run deficit already felt like too much to overcome. But the Rangers tacked on three more runs, including a two-run home run from Grossman in the fifth off Kikuchi, to make it 7-0 after the sixth inning. That put it all but out of reach for the Blue Jays, who have not come back from a deficit of three runs or more to win since July 9 against Detroit, the last game before the All-Star break. Since then, they are 0-19 in games where they trailed by three or more runs, per STATS Perform.
Bat drop too cold 🥶 pic.twitter.com/Wdz25iYLBJ
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) September 14, 2023
There is a tendency for some fickle fans or pundits to want to declare their season over, especially after dropping three straight games in ugly fashion. The truth is, the Blue Jays still remain very much in a wild-card race where three teams are vying for two spots. They are in control of their destiny and a win on Thursday will bring them to only a half-game back of the Rangers.
After this series, the Blue Jays have 15 games left, all against the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. If they win those series, it’s possible they can still claim a playoff spot, especially with the Rangers and Mariners still scheduled to play seven games against each other.
“It sucks that we lost the first three of the series but again, everything is in front of us,” Schneider said. “You can’t worry about what other teams are doing. You have to go out and play your game. Tonight, we didn’t play great and they beat us. So (the no-show is) not concerning. If the season was going to be over tomorrow, yeah, it’s concerning. But we got two weeks ahead of us and you have to take it one day at a time. Again, it’s not the way we wanted the series to go so far, but in order to stop it, you got to win tomorrow.”
Yes, the playoffs are still in play. But, at this point, it’s fair to seriously wonder how the Blue Jays would even fare during October baseball. With this latest loss, the Blue Jays are 41-49 against teams at or above .500. Against AL teams currently in a playoff spot, they are 17-28.
But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The Blue Jays first need to get to the postseason. The first step in that pursuit is at least winning a game on Thursday.
“We need to move on, not dwell on the past,” Springer said. “Obviously, you want to win, and you need to win, and you want to play better. But at the end of the day, the game is over. Let’s learn from it and we’ll hand the ball to Gausman tomorrow, and we’ll see what happens.”
(Top photo of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: Cole Burston / Getty Images)