Two weeks ago, John Gibbons declared that his Blue Jays had hit rock bottom. This week, his team has found a way to bore through the bedrock.
What lies beneath feels a lot like quicksand.
The Jays started their seven-game homestand—their last of the regular season—by winning three of four from the Yankees. When they blew a sweep in the last inning of the series finale, it felt ominous, an ignominious loss in a critical game they should have won.
Then the Orioles came to town, hot on Toronto's trail in the race for the first wild-card berth. The Jays won handily in the first game, then lost 3-2. And on Thursday night, in their regular-season finale at the Rogers Centre, they lost 4-0. They scored seven runs over the pivotal three-game set.
So they head for a windup weekend in Boston in a dead heat with Baltimore for the top wild-card spot and just 1.5 games ahead of Detroit for the second. Seattle, meanwhile, sits two games back of the second wild card, making this a four-team race entering the final weekend of the season.
The Blue Jays' slumping offence has averaged 3.7 runs per game in September, and the Marlins are the only team in baseball who have scored fewer runs during the month. They are scheduled to face Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and David Price on the weekend. Toronto counters with Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez. Rain is in the forecast for all three days, foreshadowing possible havoc for pitching plans.
As you would expect, there was brave talk in the Blue Jays' clubhouse after Thursday's loss, but there was no masking the gloom.
Gibbons insisted that his players remain positive. Starter Marcus Stroman maintained their confidence remains intact.
"It hasn't changed from the beginning," Stroman said. "It's the same exact confidence we had going down 2-0 to Texas last year [in the ALDS]. We're fine."
Like Stroman, Gibbons sounded a little like a man whistling as he walked past a cemetery.
"All it's going to take is to put together a complete game, get some hits, score some runs and get a well-pitched outing like we've been getting," he said. "That's usually the cure-all. It's not for lack of effort, that's for damned sure."
But during an 11-15 September, the Blue Jays have rarely mustered a multi-dimensional win. Thursday's 4-0 score flattered them. They collected three hits. After allowing a leadoff single in the first inning, Baltimore starter Ubaldo Jimenez—he of the 5.44 ERA—held them hitless over the next 23 batters.
Baltimore and Toronto both have three games left. As the series ended, their records were identical, but they looked like teams going in opposite directions.
"This time of the year momentum is huge," said Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. "Over 162 [games], momentum is going to come and go, but once you start getting close to the playoffs momentum is big."
While passing the 200-inning plateau for the first time, Stroman allowed nine hits and four runs over seven frames. In four of his past five starts, the Jays have not scored while he was in the game.
"Every single guy in this clubhouse has the capability of turning it on at any point," Stroman said. "We're hoping that our luck starts to turn. We're hoping to go into Boston and come out firing and hopefully go in there and get three wins."
They may need all three to make the playoffs.
Of course, Stroman is correct. The Jays could still turn it around. But doing it in Boston, against those starters, on a field where the image of David Ortiz is newly embossed on the outfield grass to set the stage for a massive retirement party, is a tall order.
Gibbons had to agree.
"We've got our backs against the wall, but we're still in a good spot," he said. "But it won't be easy. It's not supposed to be easy up here, that's for sure."
The weekend holds a host of permutations.
If the Blue Jays clinch the first wild-card berth, they would host the wild-card game at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday night.
If the Jays wind up tied for the first wild-card spot, the team with the better head-to-head record would host the game. If they tie for the second wild-card berth, a tiebreaker would be played Monday, with head-to-head record determining the home team. If you really want to know what happens if more than two teams wind up tied, well, read this.
The Jays will finish with a better head-to-head record vs. Baltimore and Detroit. They split the season series with Seattle, so the tiebreaker would depend on the teams' records within their divisions.
These are the scheduled matchups in Boston:
Friday night: Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.53 vs. Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.11)
Saturday night: J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.20) vs. Eduardo Rodriguez (3-7, 4.68)
Sunday afternoon: Aaron Sanchez (14-2, 3.06) vs. David Price (17-9, 4.04)
Should the Jays clinch home-field advantage in the wild-card game before Saturday or Sunday—a long shot at this point—Gibbons has hinted he might hold back Sanchez to start on Tuesday, possibly with Happ as backup in case Sanchez encounters early trouble. If the wild-card race goes down to the final day, Sanchez would start Sunday, with Francisco Liriano the probable Tuesday starter if the Jays make it that far.
The Red Sox probably would stick with their rotation, but limit their starters' pitch counts while keeping them sharp for the ALDS.
The Orioles have not announced their rotation for their weekend series in New York.
In Atlanta, the Tigers have scheduled Daniel Norris (3-2, 3.59) for Friday, Jordan Zimmerman (9-6, 4.88) for Saturday, and Justin Verlander (16-8, 3.10) for Sunday. If the Tigers clinch a wild-card berth before Sunday, they might save Verlander for the sudden-death game on Tuesday.
The Wiles of Mother Nature
Unsettled weather in the northeast US could also make playoff waves. In Boston, the forecast calls for a chance of rain Friday (highest at night), rain on Saturday (highest likelihood around game time at 7 PM) and a chance of rain on Sunday (highest in late afternoon and evening, toward the end of a game scheduled to start at 3:05 PM).
Baltimore plays in New York, where rain is forecast for Saturday and a chance of rain for Friday and Sunday. Rain delays could wreak havoc on starting rotations, so it's likely officials would revise start times rather than force interruptions of games in progress.
On the other coast, the Mariners finish at home against Oakland. Rain is forecast for Saturday.