108: Jays path to postseason was anything but straight

JAYS FANS ARE GEARING UP FOR THEIR FIRST POSTSEASON GAME IN 22 YEARS. BUT BEFORE THE FIRST PITCH IS THROWN ON THURSDAY, HERE'S A REMINDER OF JUST HOW FAR THIS TEAM HAS COME. (photo: JEREMY KING)

JAYS FANS ARE GEARING UP FOR THEIR FIRST POSTSEASON GAME IN 22 YEARS. BUT BEFORE THE FIRST PITCH IS THROWN ON THURSDAY, HERE'S A REMINDER OF JUST HOW FAR THIS TEAM HAS COME. (photo: JEREMY KING)

Oct. 4, 2015

By Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network

They say sports are the only “real” reality TV. 

And what great television the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays have given us thus far. 

After witnessing the Jays’ tumultuous regular season - one that included drastic roster changes throughout - it would be easy to mistake their campaign for one long episode of Extreme Makeover.

There were certainly breakout seasons and feel-good stories galore ...

In April, who really knew just how important guys like Kevin Pillar, Ryan Goins, and Chris Colabello were going to be?

The team boasts a potential American League MVP in Josh Donaldson. Perhaps a Cy Young winner as well in David Price.

On April 25th the team made major league history by having three Canadian-born players in a starting lineup. Five Canadians have played for the Jays this season.

Over 162 games, the Blue Jays scored 891 runs, the most in baseball since 2009.

They hit 232 home runs and had a pair of 11-game winning streaks.

But perhaps the most exciting plot-twist came in late July. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with complete games, walk-off hits, All-Star votes, or home runs.

It involved a man in a suit (not a jersey) relentlessly working the phones (not the count) in the hopes of accomplishing ... well ... exactly what the Blue Jays accomplished.

A division championship.

So as the players finally got to spray champagne and pour out beers all around the Baltimore Orioles’ visitor clubhouse, there was little doubt that General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’ remarkable Trade Deadline (where he acquired Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins, and David Price) stole the show.

***

At the time the deadline deals went down, the Blue Jays were underachieving. Again. 

Now? Not so much. 

Yet, even as I look back it’s hard to believe the impact that one week had on the season. But just for the fun of it, let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we.

On April 6th, the Jays rolled into Yankees Stadium for their season opener.

No Marcus Stroman - out with a torn ACL.

No Revere or Tulo or Price - they were wearing different uniforms. 

Goins wasn’t even on the 25 man roster yet. Neither was Colabello.

Steve Tolleson and Danny Valencia were on the Jays’ bench.

Jose Reyes and twenty-four-year-old Devon Travis were playing up the middle.

Travis was actually making his first career big league start, which also turned out to be the first game of his AL rookie of the month honours. He’d go on to hit .325 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in April. He had more RBIs and home runs than Donaldson through those first 23 games.

Let’s also not forget that back then set-up man Aaron Sanchez was in the starting rotation. Marco Estrada was in the ‘pen - so was a guy named Colt Hynes (?).

Sanchez actually made 11 starts before assuming his current relief role.

The team started the season with a twenty-year-old closer not named Roberto Osuna. However, Miguel Castro would be sent down rather quickly and then traded to the Colorado Rockies.

In game one of one-sixty-two, Kevin Pillar was in left - not centre - field (which could actually be the most shocking memory of all considering how well he has played).

And, of course, Daniel Norris’ van was still a thing. 

Aren’t you glad we now have better things to talk about?

Here’s how the Jays’ lineup looked in their first game, a 6-1 win over the New York Yankees:

1 Jose Reyes, SS
2 Russell Martin, C
3 Jose Bautista, RF
4 Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
5 Josh Donaldson, 3B
6 Dioner Navarro, DH
7 Dalton Pompey, CF
8 Kevin Pillar, LF
9 Devon Travis, 2B

Drew Hutchison took the mound as the opening day starter. The rest of the rotation was comprised of RA Dickey, Norris, Mark Buehrle, and Sanchez.

Hard to imagine the rotation now without Price and Stroman ...

Think about having to go into the postseason with that original rotation. No offence to anyone, but yikes.

Ah, the not-so-good old days ... 

But multiple roster explosions and one glorious July week later, and things looked totally different.

The Jays’ day-one leadoff man was shipped to the Colorado Rockies with the young closer, Castro. 

The three-starter, Norris, was dealt to the Detroit Tigers in order to lure Price, who has gone 9-1 since being acquired.

After playing in 62 games, second baseman Travis would require season ending surgery to repair an injured shoulder.

The highly-touted Canadian outfielder, Pompey, struggled right from opening day. He was sent down after just 23 games, but not before giving one of the most revealing, albeit honest, interviews I’ve ever seen, in which he admitted to “playing scared.”

And, as I review that initial lineup card, it’s definitely a bit strange seeing Donaldson’s name that far down in the order.

Although having Donaldson bat fifth really shouldn’t seem that crazy, he only hit .233 in the eight games that Gibby put him there. He’s hit .305 and added 38 home runs in 135 games batting second - the spot he occupied all throughout “the run”, the spot he will now occupy in the playoffs. 

The playoffs ... 

(THE PLAYOFFS!)

***

One week after their opening day win - which included a six-inning, three-hit gem by Hutchison - the Jays would play their first game at home. 

As always, the stadium was sold out for the home opener. But (also as always) that sort of attendance wouldn’t last long. The very next day they drew a crowd of just 17,264. In game three, 15,086.

Yet, as the team went through sweeping roster changes so did the atmosphere at Rogers Centre. 

The Jays haven’t had less than 40,000 people in the dome since August 11th. Every home game in September was sold-out. Television ratings have been record-setting. And playoff tickets - forget about it. The ALDS sold out almost instantly.

The cheapest seat for Game 1 on the ticket resale website Stubhub.com is going for $139.00. And that’s just a single seat in the 28th row of the 500 level - the same 500 level where you could have bought a ticket for less than a bucket of popcorn a few months ago.

But perhaps that’s to be expected when you win games. It was like that in 1992. It was like that in 1993. And, finally, it’s like that again now.

In 2015 B.T. (Before Tulo) the Jays were 50-51. They had been hovering around 20th in major league attendance.

If you live anywhere north of the 49th parallel, I probably don’t need to tell you the Jays finished the season with 93 wins. Which means that the Jays have gone 43-18 since Tulowitzki’s first game in blue ... which is just an absolutely absurd statistic when you think about it.

The Jays also jumped to eighth in both total and average attendance (fourth in the American League).

The feeling inside the dome is different as well. It’s not just the visible difference in the lack of empty seats, but there’s been an unmistakeable jolt of energy. 

It’s louder. It’s rowdier. It’s ... happier. Everybody and their mother are following Your Toronto Blue Jays. What a time to be alive.

During the second-to-last home game of the season, against the Tampa Bay Rays, I recall cursing the horrid tradition that is “the wave” as I saw it form out in left-centre.

The next thing I remember thinking is “duck and cover” because it felt like the stadium was about to collapse. 

It was so thunderously loud that if you closed your eyes you might think you were sitting in the middle of the subway tracks. I wouldn’t be surprised if it registered on the Richter scale. It was pulsating, and even I couldn’t resist throwing my hands up as the wave erupted throughout the stands.

So come Thursday, when the first postseason game in 22 years gets played in Canada, they better have the Rogers Centre roof open. 

‘Cause you better believe Jays fans are going to bring the house DOWN.

***

Follow Tyler and #section108 on twitter: @tylerjoseph108