Four keys to wild-card series win for Blue Jays
MINNEAPOLIS — For the third time in four years, the Toronto Blue Jays are a part of the second season.
The first step of navigating the 162-game grind is complete, and this club has a clean slate alongside 11 other franchises around baseball.
As the Minnesota Twins have not won a postseason game since 2004, Target Field is expected to be a tough environment for the visitors when the series begins Tuesday and the Twins come in having played some very good baseball over the final month.
Here are four keys — two for the bats, two for the arms — for a wild-card series win for the Jays this week.
DO THE BATS SHOW UP?
We’ve talked about it all summer.
The inconsistent offence has been frustrating not only fans but those involved all season long.
But the thing about this lineup is the resumes and reputations of the names manager John Schneider will pencil in for Game 1 on Tuesday haven’t matched the production.
George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Matt Chapman, Daulton Varsho and Alejandro Kirk all suffered through down seasons relative to both expectations and past production.
Can they find their groove when it matters most?
A lot of the veterans on this team have been making the case that they believe that will happen.
Making the postseason gives this lineup a chance to wipe the slate clean and meet expectations after hitting just 188 homers this season.
Turn it on at the exact right time of year or continue to struggle to find key hits at key times?
After watching this lineup through 162, it’s truly impossible to predict which offence will show up.
STARS NEED TO BE STARS
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Bo Bichette Toronto Blue Jays
Simply put, Bo Bichette, Springer and Vladdy Jr. need to produce.
Bichette, whose postseason defence let them down in 2020 against Tampa, can carry a lineup when he’s hot, but the glove has been as consistent as its ever been this season and that needs to continue when the margin for error simply isn’t there in the postseason.
The stats back up his improvement, too, as Bichette’s Outs Above Average rose from minus-5 and minus-7 in 2021 and 2022, to minus-2 this season.
Defensive Runs Saved saw even more pronounced improvement, as Bichette went from minus-16 DRS in 2022 to a plus-4 mark this year.
From there, Springer having an early postseason moment in this series would be beneficial, while Guerrero is capable of breaking out at any moment but has been scuffling lately with just four hits in his last 22 trips to the plate heading into the playoffs.
The complementary pieces will need to contribute, but if one or two of these three aren’t producing it may be hard to score enough this week at Target Field.
LIMIT THE TRAFFIC
The Twins led the American League in home runs this season, bashing 233 balls over the fence.
Overall, that led to 4.8 runs per game, good for fifth in the American League, behind four other playoff teams in Texas (5.4), Tampa (5.3), Houston (5.1) and Baltimore (5.0).
The Jays checked in at 4.6, sitting right at the MLB average and eighth in the AL.
These two offences have produced very differently this season, making it paramount that Blue Jays starters limit the traffic early in ballgames.
If the Twins are going to score, chances are it’s via damage and the long ball.
Solo shots are much, much different than multi-run blasts that break games open and end pitchers’ days quickly.
Limiting the walks and playing air-tight defence — this is one area where the Jays have improved this year compared to previous versions of this club the last couple of seasons — has to be a focus against the power, much of it left-handed, that the Twins possess in their lineup.
THE TWO JORDANS
Jordan Romano Toronto Blue Jays
It’s no secret that good pitching is the separator in the postseason and that’s exactly what the Jays front office had in mind when they swooped in prior to the trade deadline to acquire Jordan Hicks from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Hicks was lights-out down the stretch, too, and you could argue without that trade this club may have missed the postseason entirely.
Across 25 appearances with the Jays, Hicks registered a solid 2.63 ERA, but was money down the stretch and had a string of 13 straight appearances without allowing an earned run snapped in his final outing.
Toronto Blue JaysJordan Romano, on the other hand, created a couple of tense moments lately and had back-to-back Ls hung on him last week, prompting Schneider to curiously use him in the eighth inning of his final outing on Saturday.
Schneider said it was all about matchups, but the timing was interesting. Romano’s stuff did look filthy, however, as he was touching 99 mph.
Still, Hicks might be viewed as the guy to deal with the 1-2-3-4 hitters in the Twins lineup in leverage situations this week.
If the Jays are able to make a deep run this October, it’ll be because these two have been close to untouchable and have shortened ballgames.