This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
The 2014 Blue Jays were hardly the mess that they could have been, or that they're often portrayed as. Even general manager Alex Anthopoulos has lately taken to emphasizing a change in philosophy that he felt was necessary after last season ended, talking about his renewed belief in the importance of clubhouse chemistry and building a roster full of players with winning attitudes.
It's a bit of a quaint notion, implying that the lack of such character is what allowed a once promising season to come undone. When the trade deadline passed on July 31, the Blue Jays were 60-50, three games up on the Mariners for the American League's second wild-card spot, and just 1.5 games behind the Orioles in the AL East. The common perception is that the season came undone after the club failed to make any major moves at the deadline, which players were vocally and publicly upset about (even though the presumption is that payroll was so close to its max that the Jays were unable to take on cash in deals, which made the task nearly impossible).
It's true that the Jays limped home through the season's final two months, going just 23-29 the rest of the way, but limped is sort of the operative word. Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind both missed the first half of August, and struggled to get back up to speed after lengthy layoffs (Encarnacion hit just .167/.286/.333 from the 15th of August to Sept. 2, and Lind was only slightly better at .250/.298/.341). Brett Lawrie had one at-bat after June 22, and by August his main replacement, Juan Francisco, was badly cratering at the plate. Melky Cabrera would play just four games in September. Closer Casey Janssen was healthy, but still in the throes of his post-All-Star break implosion, too.
None of this is to suggest that there may not have been reason for the Blue Jays to want a culture change heading into 2015, it's just to point out that the link between chemistry and what happened to the 2014 Jays is a little bit suspect. Nonetheless, the way he tells is, Anthopoulos put on his alchemist's hat as he began trying to revamp his roster, adding proven veteran leaders who just happened to be two of the best players in the game at their positions, catcher Russell Martin and third baseman Josh Donaldson, less than a month after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series.
As much as anything that happened between the white lines, the two weeks in November when those two players were added—two players worth a combined 12 wins above replacement this season, compared to the 5.6 WAR the Jays got out of third base and catcher last season—were perhaps the most crucial for the 2015 Jays. Until the week of the trade deadline, that is.
Of course, that's far from the whole story of how the Blue Jays got to this moment.
In early March, the club's would-be ace Marcus Stroman blew out his knee and was pronounced out for the season—a diagnosis that we all saw through a summer's worth of tweets he was determined to prove wrong.
After winning a spot in the bullpen with an electrifying spring training, Miguel Castro assumed the closer's role for the club in early April, only to have lost the job by early May. He has since been shipped off to the Colorado Rockies. The shuffling of the pitching staff around that time, which also saw the demotion of starter Daniel Norris (who himself was later traded to Detroit), set the stage for the emergence of two of the club's most important, if unheralded, performers: it expanded the role of reliever Roberto Osuna, who would later take hold of the closer's job and do a masterful job of it, and it sent Marco Estrada into the starting rotation. Estrada would start slowly there, but in the second half emerged as one of the best starters in the AL.
Not long after, in mid-May, R.A. Dickey and pitching coach Pete Walker made some crucial tweaks (which they're unusually clandestine about) to the then-struggling knuckleballer's delivery, which completely turned his season around. His ERA was 5.77 at the end of May, and has been 3.11 since. In the second half, his 2.80 ERA has him just behind Estrada and Justin Verlander for the fourth-best mark in the league. The leader is, of course, new teammate David Price.
The Jays finished May at 23-29, but not before a hugely uplifting win on the 26th of the month, thanks to a walk-off home run from Donaldson. Their new third baseman was already fully on his way to an MVP-type season, and showing off his flair for the dramatic. This was the second of what would be three walk-off home runs this season—he has seven over the last three years, while no other player has more than three.
On June 2, the Jays lost the first game of a doubleheader in Washington, dropping their record to 23-30, and a season-worst seven games below .500. Then they had a nap. Between the games of the doubleheader, players took the chance to sleep for a bit in the clubhouse, and as if by some force of magic, went on a tear. They wouldn't lose again until June 15, a run of 11 straight wins—the first of two such streaks this season.
The Jays struggled a bit from mid-June until the All-Star break, but were now buoyed in the standings by the streak. Those four days off in mid-July seemed to serve them well, as they looked better in the second half of July—more like the team that the underlying numbers (particularly its massive run differential) suggested Toronto should be—setting the stage for the most crucial moment of the season so far: Anthopoulos and the front office deciding to believe in those numbers, and not the 50-50 record the team sat on the morning of July 28. News began filtering out that the club had flipped oft-maligned shortstop Jose Reyes, along with Castro and stud-in-the-making Jeff Hoffman, to the Rockies for Troy Tulowitzki, the best shortstop in the game when healthy, and reliever LaTroy Hawkins. The Blue Jays were all in.
After a few days of fans wondering why a starting pitcher wasn't the key target, they got their answer in the form of Price. The Jays acquired their ace in the wee morning hours of July 30. They had won the night before. They would lose only once in their next 15 games (to the Kanas City Royals, a possible ALCS opponent, in the middle game of a fiery series at Rogers Centre). They also added key complementary pieces, outfielder Ben Revere and reliever Mark Lowe, at this point.
From there, you probably remember what happened. A tough series loss to the Yankees—featuring an epic ninth-inning battle between the newly-acquired Tulowitzki and tremendous Yankees closer Andrew Miller—a split with the lowly Phillies, then more dominance. A 26-10 record between then and when they clinched the AL East on Wednesday in Baltimore. The return of Stroman. The injury and quick recovery of Tulowitzki. Encarnacion finally looking like his healthy and incredible self. Jose Bautista going on a second-half tear and reaching the 40-homer mark. The surprising emergence of Ryan Goins' bat. The eruption of joy at having finally brought playoff baseball back to a city, and country, that has for so long undeservedly missed it.
It's truly been a wild ride. The scary part is, now that October baseball is finally here, it's only getting started.