From A(A) to Z(eke): A Look Back at the Blue Jays' Wild 2016 Season
The Blue Jays had another successful season, making the ALCS for the second consecutive year. We review the key themes, moments, and players, alphabetically from Anthopoulos to Zeke.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
The Toronto Blue Jays came into the 2016 season with nearly impossible expectations. Nothing short of a World Series title would have been satisfied fans or players alike after their dominant second half of 2015 ended in ALCS disappointment in Kansas City.
Toronto did manage to get itself back to the ALCS, but the path it took to get there was hardly the one anyone envisioned. It was a long, strange, often frustrating season—one that eventually produced some incredible moments of joy, but was often coloured by bitterness and disappointment. Fans may not have felt this way in September, but the good ultimately ended up far outweighing the bad.
It was a season worth celebrating, so let's do just that, with a look back at everything Blue Jays in 2016, alphabetically from A(A) to Z(eke)!
No review of the Blue Jays' 2016 season, especially an alphabetical one, could start anywhere else but with their former GM, Alex Anthopoulos. AA's spectre hung over the Rogers Centre all summer. How could it not? The core of the team was assembled by him. The Jays' most significant offseason moves involved players he'd originally acquired (Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ). The club's biggest improvements came from a pair of his favourites (Aaron Sanchez and Michael Saunders). His acrimonious and sudden exit was the biggest story of the winter. And the spirit of fans, their enthusiasm, and the huge crowds in the stadium and on TV all had their roots in the whirlwind of deals Anthopoulos made in July 2015. He may have spent the season in Los Angeles working for the Dodgers, but his presence was very much still here.
Brawling Blue Jays
If the way that the TBS broadcast crew tried to shoehorn in mentions of it was any indication, the Blue Jays' season was defined in the minds of American viewers by a single incident: Rougned Odor's jaw shot to Jose Bautista back in May. Of course, to call that incident singular would be to overlook everything that went before it, from Bautista's hard slide, to Matt Bush plunking him, to the Jays' anger that Texas waited until the late innings of the last scheduled meeting of the season between the two teams to seek retribution for everything that happened in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS, especially Bautista posterizing their lowest moment with a mighty bat flip. And beyond that, it's not unfair to say that these Blue Jays didn't have a taste for fist-punching. Sparks flew between the Jays and the Twins later in May, when Josh Donaldson took exception to being thrown at, and it was that same concern about being pitched too often and too closely inside that caused a September brawl against the Yankees—one that saw key reliever Joaquin Benoit lost for the season to a leg injury, which was a hard way for the Jays to (hopefully) learn that their aggressive responses to perceived slights are maybe not always the best idea.
Canada Day Marathon
Foreshadowing a hard-fought August series that featured a game won on a gut-punch of a Tyler Naquin "inside the park home run"/Saunders-Melvin Upton Jr. misplay, and their frustrating ALCS exit, the Blue Jays hosted Cleveland on Canada Day in a game that turned into an extra-inning opus. Cleveland ultimately won the game on a 19th-inning Carlos Santana home run off an 85-mph Darwin Barney fastball. It was a maddening, longer-than-expected, can't-tear-myself-away game that ultimately ended in disappointment (and with not enough runs scored), but was thoroughly entertaining all the way through—not unlike the season itself.
The 2016 Blue Jays campaign didn't follow nearly the same arc as the season that preceded it, and just didn't feel like it lived up to 2015's standard in terms of high drama, high-energy moments and explosions of unbridled joy shaking the Rogers Centre to its core. The success of 2015 had come so suddenly and was so forceful and new that nothing short of a World Series run could have compared. Yet there were still moments that inspired those kinds of emotional outpourings, and one of the them was unquestionably Donaldson's mad dash from third base to walk-off the Texas Rangers and win the ALDS for the Blue Jays. A true shot of karmic justice, it was Odor who made the bad throw to first that allowed Donaldson to sprint home on what would have otherwise been an inning-ending double play. Donaldson's twisting, reaching slide for the plate sent the Rogers Centre into an absolute frenzy unlike any since Bautista's immortal bat flip. Or at least not since the week before.
Edwin and Jose's Last Stand?
If Alex Anthopoulos was the ghost that hung over the Blue Jays' season, the contract situations of Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were the dark cloud. Encarnacion had made it clear that he wouldn't negotiate once the season began, and Bautista said that there would be no negotiating—that he had a number and that the Blue Jays either would meet it or they wouldn't. Jose was too expensive to consider pursuing aggressively, and Edwin came with a number of questions about health, having ended the 2015 season with finger problems and a hernia that required surgery, so it made little sense for the club to push hard to sign either player, and so they steamed forward toward free agency. Interestingly, over the course of that year the winter's script completely flipped. Bautista, the health nut, suffered an injury-plagued campaign, looking mostly ordinary in the times that he happened to be healthy. Encarnacion, on the other hand, played 160 games, came to the plate 702 times, hit 42 home runs, and established himself as the most sought-after slugger hitting the market this winter—a position it was long expected Bautista would hold. Now that it's over, and the thoughts of how the Jays will retool their roster begin in earnest, more than ever before fans are left wondering if this is really the end of the road for the iconic duo. It was a hell of a run if so.
The Blue Jays had an abysmal September that saw them take a two-game lead in the AL East on Aug. 31 and turn it into third place a month later. At the end of September they were chasing the Orioles, and six games behind the Red Sox. Donaldson and Bautista struggled to hit for power as they dealt with hip and knee injuries, respectively; Troy Tulowitzki was pedestrian; Russell Martin looked lost; and Justin Smoak, Upton, and Saunders looked even worse. On the pitching side, the bridge to Roberto Osuna was coming apart at the seams as Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini hit big speed bumps for the first time as Blue Jays, and Estrada struggled adjusting to life in the six-man rotation. In a blink the Jays found themselves fighting for their playoff lives. Seven wins in ten games starting in Anaheim helped to almost right the ship, but it then wobbled again. They finished out the month with four losses in five games, including two particularly demoralizing ones at home to the Orioles, and the first of the season's final series in Boston. But when the calendar turned, things changed dramatically. The club prevailed by the tightest of margins at Fenway Park in the last two games of the season, scratching out late inning go-ahead runs, turning to Osuna to close the door, saving the season and punching their ticket back home to host the wild-card game.
Grilli and Benoit
The Blue Jays began the 2015 season with their bullpen a giant mess. Remember Arnold Leon? Worse yet, remember Drew Storen? The club's big relief acquisition over the winter, who came over for the well-liked-but-redundant Ben Revere, bombed spectacularly. Storen arrived with a fastball two mph slower than the year before, and quickly found himself getting lit up. A bullpen that may have been a strength of the club, with Storen, Osuna, Sanchez, and Brett Cecil, was in need of saving by the end of May. Enter Grilli. The veteran reliever had seen his 2015 season ended by an achilles rupture, and was struggling in Atlanta to start the season, having walked 13 batters and given up 16 hits over 17 innings. But the Jays saw something in him—they liked that his stuff and his velocity and his strikeout rate remained intact—and with the Braves going nowhere, the Jays struck and added him for basically nothing in a trade at the end of May. Not only did it work beautifully on the mound, as Grilli turned his season around and became a vital setup man in front of Osuna, the fiery flamethrower quickly became a fan favourite, too. And the feeling was mutual! Grilli's father had played in the Blue Jays' farm system, and he'd grown up rooting for the club. In July the club added another key bullpen piece, flipping Storen to Seattle for their own struggling veteran reliever, Benoit, and struck gold once again. They weren't perfect, but along with Osuna, Cecil, and Biagini, Grilli and Benoit gave the Jays a bullpen solid enough to get them to the playoffs.
Happ Wins 20 Games
Pitcher wins aren't the revered stat that they once were, and for good reason. Wins reflect much more on the team than the pitcher himself, and there are much better ways to measure a pitcher's effectiveness. But still... Happ won 20 games! Hands up if you ever felt you'd live in a world where that was possib-- put your hand down!! Happ was maligned, mostly unfairly, in his first stint with the Blue Jays, but he never had the look of a front-of-the-rotation horse that he took on in 2016. He was always frustrating to watch—a nibbler who took too many pitches to get through too few innings—but something changed for the better last season. He played most of it with Seattle, and will insist that things began to click for him there, even though the results didn't reflect it. But it was after a trade to Pittsburgh where the new Happ really started to show. He pitched to a 1.85 ERA over 11 starts, working more with his fastball than ever before. But because it was only a brief burst of success, and because they remembered his previous tenure, his signing last winter was greeted with howls of outrage from Blue Jays fans—though a big part of that was because of what it meant about the club's interest in keeping David Price. The new front office saw the upside in Happ's late-season success, and surely liked his cost relative to the rest of the free agent pitching market and the fact that they didn't need to surrender a draft pick to sign him. They bet big, and in the first year it certainly paid off. Though Price's peripherals were better across the board, in terms of straight ERA, Happ was better, 3.18 to 3.99. Oh, and there were also the 20 wins.
In retrospect it seems ridiculous, but throughout the winter, and into spring training, Jays fans and the front office alike debated whether Sanchez should remain in the bullpen or be given the chance to start. He'd been incredible when pitching out of the bullpen in 2014 and 2015, living off his bowling ball-like sinker, but there were questions as to whether he had the secondary stuff to successfully make the jump to the rotation so quickly. Plus, the bullpen could certainly have used him, and early on Gavin Floyd was making his own strong case to start. Sanchez, however, worked hard to put on "man weight" in the offseason, and he destroyed just about everyone he faced in the spring—a trend that would continue into the regular season. The Jays let him loose in the rotation and were rewarded handsomely. Sanchez made the All-Star team and established himself, legitimately, as the ace of the rotation. The only problem was that he'd never really approached a big-league starter's workload over the course of a single season, and there were fears of asking too much of his young, untested, and incredibly valuable arm. So much so that the Jays maintained for most of the year—perhaps just to keep the constant questions at bay—that at some point he'd find his way back to the bullpen in order to keep his number of innings pitched down. But as the season wore on it became apparent that he was just too good, and too important, and too determined to remain a starter for the club to banish him to relief. Even the acquisition of Francisco Liriano couldn't knock Sanchez from his spot, as the club switched to a six-man rotation to accommodate both pitchers. At least we know that next year there won't be a single person questioning where he belongs.
Joe Be a Genie Tonight
The Rule 5 Draft ain't what it used to be. Sure, it's still MLB's mechanism to prevent teams from stockpiling minor leaguers by allowing other teams to take ones that have lingered at lower levels for too many years without having ever been added to their club's 40-man roster, but the days of swiping a Roberto Clemente, or even a George Bell, Johan Santana, or a pre-breakout Bautista seem long gone. Rule 5 selections need to be kept on a team's big-league roster for the full year or else they're offered back to the team they came from, and roster spots are simply too valuable, and clubs carry too many relievers these days, for it to make sense to hold onto a project who wasn't regarded highly enough to make his original club—especially if you're a team with designs of a championship. But the Blue Jays defied the odds in 2016 on this front, seeing something in Biagini, a Double-A starter from the Giants' organization. Needing all the pitching depth they could find, the Jays rolled the dice and liked what they saw in spring training from Biagini, who found a place among the lower rungs of their Opening Day bullpen. He worked his way up from there, continuing to impress with a heavy fastball that was noticeably harder in short relief stints than it was when he was a starter. By the end of the year he was being tasked with some of the highest-leverage innings available and had made a name for himself among fans for his off-field quirks—and, more importantly, as a valuable part of the Jays' future.
Kevin Pillar: Superman
Kevin Pillar didn't hit nearly as well this season as he did the year previous. Some of that might be attributable to a thumb injury he suffered in August, but the fact of the matter is, most fans probably didn't even notice. Pillar's job is to catch the baseball, and anything he's able to do with the bat is just gravy. To continue a bad food metaphor, though his 2016 season may not have been quite as slathered in gravy as 2015, it was comparatively overflowing with meat and potatoes. Yes, according to the numbers, Pillar was somehow even better with his glove this year than he was in his sublime breakout season. Part of that may be due to the fact that he was covering ground for poor defenders, like Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders, on his flanks, but still! After being worth 14 runs by both DRS (defensive runs saved) and UZR (ultimate zone rating) in 2015, this season he finished second only to Rays gold glover Kevin Kiermaier in DRS at 21, and led the majors in UZR among centre fielders at 21.4—with the next-best player well back at 13.3, and only three others above 10. Of course, anyone who watched him on a regular basis doesn't need a bunch of numbers to know how good Pillar is in the field. In fact, he's not just good, he's Superman.
With the club's long playoff drought coming to an end in 2015, with the Rogers Centre absolutely rocking from the end of July onward, with playoff tickets used as the carrot used to get fans to invest in season tickets for the following year, and the core of a near-unstoppable team remaining intact, the Blue Jays set themselves up for a big year at the gate in 2016. And boy, did fans deliver. Not only did the Blue Jays cross the 3-million ticket threshold for the first time since 1993. Not only did they post the fifth-highest attendance mark in club history, behind only the World Series years of 1992 and 1993, the ALCS season of 1991, and the post-ALCS second-place finish of 1990. Not only were the crowds big and engaged and wildly supportive. But the Jays led the AL in attendance for the first time in 23 years—trailing only Los Angeles and St. Louis for tops in baseball (but those two clubs play in stadiums with higher capacities). Maybe even more impressive, during the Boston-Cleveland ALDS, when the noise level in Cleveland approached that of Rogers Centre, it gave birth to a perfect new term: "Toronto Loud."
Martin's Meaty Middle
Martin's salary, which rises to $20 million for each of the next three years, may already be a better reflection of what he used to be rather than what he currently is. A look at his overall numbers suggests that he struggled to control the running game and took a step back at the plate in 2016. There were 11 catchers with more than 300 plate appearances who were as good or better than Martin by wRC+ (weighted runs created plus). That said, he's still a good receiver and gets bonus points for leadership intangibles. But rather than think about all that exclusively in silver linings, Jays fans can actually feel better about the future than those 2016 numbers suggest. A neck injury was behind his struggles early on, and a knee injury sapped his power in late September and the playoffs, but for nearly four months of the season Martin was legitimately spectacular. Er... for a catcher. Over 350 plate appearances, from a mid-May series against the Yankees to mid-September in Anaheim, Martin slashed an impressive .269/.371/.517, good for a 138 wRC+. Numbers, in other words, that were as good as anybody on the team not named Donaldson.
Nowhere is it more evident that the Blue Jays are an incredible, powerful national phenomenon in Canada than at Safeco Field in Seattle. Hordes of Jays fans (mostly) from British Columbia invade and get loud, get drunk, and get supportive of their team. They often turn matches into a home game for the visiting team, and always manage to drive the locals out of their minds. But it's hardly just there that the team is showered with support in visiting ballparks. In this new golden era of Blue Jays baseball, fans of the club have travelled incredibly well, filling visiting stadiums with wide swaths of blue wherever they go. At the behest of then-president (and current "president emeritus") Paul Beeston, the club began pushing especially hard to market itself as "Canada's team" around 2011. The organization resurrected the Winter Caravan tours that were staples of the club's early days in the 70s and 80s, taking players across the country to meet fans, and also started televising games across the country on Sportsnet, even making inroads into Quebec with TVA Sports (not to mention the Martin signing, and the now annual trips up the 401 for preseason games at Olympic Stadium). Watch any Blue Jays road game, but especially those in Seattle, and you'll see that clearly it's working.
O Canada at the All-Star Game
The Blue Jays sent four players—Donaldson, Saunders, Estrada, and Sanchez—to the All-Star Game in San Diego. It was Sanchez who had the most notable performance, looking a touch nervous and allowing one of the NL's two runs on the night, as he walked Buster Posey and allowed singles to Anthony Rizzo and Marcell Ozuna. But his outing was far from the most unfortunate Canadian performance on the evening—that "honour" goes to Remigio Pereira of the vocal quartet The Tenors. The group was asked to sing "O Canada" before the game, and in the glare of the TV cameras, with a vast international audience watching, when it came Pereira's turn for a solo verse he brazenly changed the lyrics. And not only was it bad enough that he took it upon himself to change the words to our national anthem, he did so to shoehorn in the words "all lives matter"—a benign-seeming statement designed to undercut the message of the Black Lives Matter movement—while holding up a card with the phrase written on it. If you're still confused over what the hell that was all about, you're far from alone. Bizarre! Also: horrible!
PED Suspension for Colabello
One of 2015's most pleasant surprises was the incredible success of an afterthought of a player picked up on waivers from Minnesota who had spent most of his career in non-affiliated baseball. From age 21 to 27, Chris Colabello toiled in the independent Can-Am League, playing against teams like the Quebec Capitales and New Jersey Jackals, while suiting up for the Worcester Tornadoes and Nashua Pride. The Twins had taken a flyer on him in 2012, and by 2013 he'd worked he way into a long, mostly unsuccessful look in the big leagues. The Jays picked him up at the end of 2014, and sent him to Buffalo at the end of spring training in 2015. He was the International League's player of the month for April which earned him a call up to Toronto, and his hot play continued from there. Though a lot of his success appeared to be attributable to an unsustainably high BABIP (batting average on balls in play), he made enough good contact and showed enough power to make fans think that the Blue Jays had really found something. More than that, Colabello had been one of the best hitters in baseball in 2015—his 142 wRC+ ranked 16th among all big leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances—and started all but one of the Jays' playoff games. But then came 2016. Colabello looked awful in the spring and even worse over the season's first ten games. The world soon learned the reason why: he had tested positive for a banned substance, lost his appeal, and was being suspended for 80 games and ruled ineligible for the postseason. Colabello's teammates leapt to his defence. He insisted that he didn't know how he could have tested positive and was searching for answers. The fact that he had known the suspension was coming maybe explained his poor play, but suddenly his uplifting, rags to riches story had taken a dark turn. His dismal numbers in Buffalo once he returned from suspension didn't exactly help his case, and whether he has a future in Toronto—or in the big leagues at all—is legitimately in limbo.
Quiet Exit Against Cleveland
Blue Jays fans spent most of last winter afraid that the club's starting pitching wasn't good enough. They spent most of the season's early months worried about the bullpen. In the season's middle months, they wondered when the club's offence was going to come to life, but after a 17-11 August that followed a 5-2 stretch to end July, it felt like everything was truly—finally—coming together. This was a real contender. And then September happened. The offence sputtered, the pitching struggled while working with razor-thin margins for error, and as the losses piled up it felt like the Jays were going to skid all the way out of the playoffs. But the club got it together just in time, finished strong, and gave us all the gift of postseason baseball. Or, at least, the gift of the wild-card game and the ALDS. The ALCS against Cleveland was a different story—one of frustration reminiscent of the worst days of September. The Jays scored five runs in a Game 4 victory, and only three in the other four games of the series, getting shutout twice. Though their right-handed-heavy lineup had the platoon advantage, lefty Andrew Miller punished them all series. Thirteen of their 50 strikeouts came in the 7.2 innings that Miller pitched. But beyond that they hit into double plays, hit into the shift, rolled over on pitches, and especially struggled to hit with runners in scoring position. In their four losses they were 1-for-16 with RISP, meekly bowing out to the AL champs in five games. Hey, but at least Mark Shapiro, Ross Atkins, and some of their other new front office employees who'd come from the Cleveland organization could be happy, right?
Red Sox Sign Price
When he arrived in a stunning trade in late July 2015, Price instantly seemed to change the pedigree of the Blue Jays. They had star players on the offensive side of the ball, but here was a true, bona fide, undisputed ace. And in his time with the Blue Jays (save for his typical hiccup in the playoffs) he genuinely pitched like one. Beyond that he was a hell of a lot of fun—clearly fun for his teammates to be around (he bought them scooters!), and fun for fans to watch on the field and on social media. The love affair was instant, and it seemed mutual. Price said all the right things. He loved it in Toronto. He wanted to stay if he could. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Blue Jays paid a lot of money to Happ—J.A Happ!!—and Price went to Boston. That the amount Boston paid was exorbitant made little difference to Jays fans already incensed by the departure of Anthopoulos, and the outrage only intensified when the media passed along reports that the Jays hadn't even made Price a formal offer (leaving it up to fans to figure out for themselves how meaningless such a fact is). Though it wasn't even their own transaction, the Price signing was the move that felt most central to the Blue Jays' entire offseason, and—apart from AA's departure—most troubling and frustrating to fans. Only in having their team make the playoffs and going deeper than the Red Sox did the new front office manage to exorcise those demons.
Saunders' Tale of Two Seasons
If you didn't start paying attention to the Blue Jays until late in the season, you'd probably find the fact that Saunders was an All-Star difficult to fathom. It's true, though! Granted, thanks to the Jays' enormous fan base across Canada, he rather easily won a fan vote that gave him the last spot on the team, but it was entirely on merit that he was one of the players being voted on. Saunders had 16 home runs and 25 doubles at the break. He was hitting .298 at the time, with a .372 on-base, and a wRC+ of 146. By that metric—a park- and league-adjusted measure of a player's total offensive contribution with 100 being average—he ranked 14th in all of baseball, right between Manny Machado and Nelson Cruz. Then, in the second half, it all went away. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances in the second half, Saunders ranked 13th worst in the majors with a 69 wRC+. He slashed an ugly .178/.286/.357, managing eight home runs, but striking out over 30 percent of the time—the 11th-highest mark among that same group of hitters. At midseason it seemed like he was playing himself into a big free agent contract this winter, but after the season came to a close the Jays conceded that they might not even make him a qualifying offer. After his second half, it's hard to blame them.
Tulo the Leader
When a downtrodden Tulowitzki told reporters at the end of the 2015 ALCS that he had never really felt comfortable with the Blue Jays, all kinds of alarm bells went off for fans. Would their star shortstop demand a trade? Were their problems lurking in the clubhouse? But the truth was that Tulowitzki was mostly still shaken by his sudden, midseason trade from the only team he'd ever known, the Colorado Rockies. And Tulo was determined to change that. He went on bonding trips with teammates over the winter, he roomed with Josh Donaldson during spring training, and he began the season seeming much more comfortable in his new uniform. With one exception: at the plate. Whether it was his health or something else, Tulowitzki didn't seem to be seeing the ball well early on. He struggled making contact on pitches in the zone, seemed troubled by fastballs, and by the time the Jays got to San Francisco in mid-May he was hitting just .162/.266/.306. Fortunately for the Jays—who will pay him $20 million in each of the next three seasons, plus $14 million in 2020 with a $15 million 2021 club option—things turned around quickly. From that San Francisco series to the end of the season Tulo hit a robust .281/.334/.483—good for a 118 wRC+, which is an outstanding mark for a shortstop. He missed some of early June with a DL stint, and his pace slowed down in September and October (though he was still hitting the ball hard), but whatever was plaguing him out of the gate was gone. Better still, he genuinely looked comfortable, clearly took on a demonstrable leadership role on the club, and was a joy to watch in the field.
When the Blue Jays acquired Upton Jr. from San Diego it seemed like a decent enough idea. The Padres were paying almost all of his salary, the prospect going the other way didn't mean a whole lot, and the Jays—especially with Bautista on the shelf and potentially due to a lack of mobility when he recovered—wanted an outfielder with some speed, who could play a little bit of defence, and who had some pop. More important than that, Upton didn't look completely useless with the bat. No, really! True, he had looked like one of the worst players in baseball in 2013 and 2014, immediately after signing a big free agent contract with Atlanta, but he'd recovered nicely, if quietly, in San Diego. Upton posted an above average 109 wRC+ in 2015 for the Padres, producing 1.6 wins above replacement in 87 big-league games. That trend continued in 2016 as well, as he headed into the All-Star break with a slash line of .262/.311/.454—underwhelming in terms of on-base, but with enough power to offset that. His wRC+ was 104 at the break. He was, literally, a slightly above average hitter. He cooled off after the break, but when the Blue Jays acquired him his numbers were still entirely reasonable for the fourth outfielder type they were asking him to be. And then it all went to absolute dogshit. Upton looked lost most of his time with the Blue Jays. He'd occasionally run into a pitch and do something positive, but mostly his at-bats produced eye-rolls from the crowd, and huge whiffs at the plate. Among batters with at least 180 plate appearances in the second half, Upton ranked dead last by wRC+. He had the 14th-highest strikeout rate in the group (just a shade better than his teammate Saunders), and he eventually lost his job to the perennially overlooked Ezequiel Carrera. Y'all gonna make me lose my mind.
To call ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte a novelty is a touch unfair, but that's absolutely the reason he received as much preseason buzz as he did. Still, in addition to having a rule named after him (which forces switch pitchers to identify to the umpire the hand they will throw to each batter with), Venditte came to the Blue Jays with some outstanding strikeout rates in the minor leagues and the possibility that he could be a genuinely valuable relief piece for a team if something were to click. The Jays were hopeful that they would be able to reap the rewards of that success, turning to Venditte eight times in the early parts of the season as John Gibbons tried to sort out his bullpen mess. But in the end, despite the advantage of being able to throw with both arms that had made him such a story coming out of spring, Venditte struggled. He spent most of the season in Buffalo before being moved to the Mariners' organization in August for essentially nothing.
Wild Wild Card
Jays fans spent most of the season feeling that the wild card chase was beneath them. The Red Sox had charged out of the gates, but spent the middle of the season falling back to the pack. The Orioles were always within striking distance. And the big breakout from the Blue Jays offence always felt imminent, though it never quite came. August briefly restored the club's "rightful" spot atop the division, but its September slide, coupled with the Red Sox's strong finish, forced fans to start looking at wild card scenarios. It hurt. But by the time the Jays had salvaged their season and clinched a home date with the Orioles, fans were ready. Some, like the infamous Rogers Centre beer thrower, were a little too ready. But nevertheless, they had their chance. And the Blue Jays, and the Orioles, certainly gave them a treat. Starters Marcus Stroman and Chris Tillman allowed just four hits and two runs apiece before giving way to strings of relievers that kept the game locked at 2-2 into the eleventh inning. Not among those relievers: Baltimore's dominant closer, and (half serious) Cy Young candidate, Zach Britton. He remained in the bullpen in the 11th as Brian Duensing was lifted after retiring Carrera. Instead, it was erratic starter Ubaldo Jimenez who entered with the O's season on the line, promptly giving up a pair of singles to Devon Travis and Donaldson. At that point Buck Showalter could have chosen to walk Encarnacion to get to Bautista. That would have also bought him some time to call upon his unhittable closer, but he didn't. And Edwin hit a ball over the wall as hard and as triumphantly as imaginable. The Jays won 5-2. The playoffs were on. The Rogers Centre erupted. And Baltimore's best pitcher watched it all from the right field bullpen.
In 2016 the Rays had their worst season since back when they were the Devil Rays, but that didn't stop them from being a thorn in the Blue Jays' side, like they always seem to be. Tampa won just 68 games, losing 94, but things would have been worse for them if not for the Blue Jays. Of course, struggling against the Rays is nothing new for Toronto. The Jays had a devil of a time (pun intended) winning a series in Tampa for years, and from 2011 to 2014 had just a .392 winning percentage against the Rays, going a dismal 29-45 over that span. But they seemed to have mostly put those troubles behind them over the previous two seasons, only to have their Rays issues returned at the worst possible time. While the Red Sox took 12 games from Tampa, and the Orioles 13, the Jays could manage only eight against the AL East also-rans, while losing 11. Especially painful among them were four losses in six crucial September games, and two more in the season-opening series in Tampa—including the controversial loss on Bautista's illegal slide to break up a ninth-inning bases-loaded double play that would have otherwise scored two runs. Maybe it's more feeling than reality, but for whatever reason, the Rays just seem to have the Jays' number. Still.
Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels Get Lit Up
The walk-off win over Baltimore in the wild card play-in game was an incredible high for Jays fans, but it could only last so long. Especially with a rematch with the Rangers looming in the ALDS. Not only would punch-happy Odor, Bautista, and all of the tensions caused by 2015's incredible playoff series between the two teams be at centre stage, the shaky Blue Jays bats would have their hands full in the first two games in Texas. Starting for the Rangers would be a pair of aces: Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Hamels is no soft-tossing lefty, finishing the season with a strikeout per inning, a 3.32 ERA, and his typical 200 innings on the hill. And Darvish, a hard-throwing righty with a deep arsenal of nasty pitches, might be even better. It wasn't difficult to envision the Blue Jays quickly falling behind 2-0, as they had done the year before. But, of course, that wasn't at all what happened. The Jays jumped all over Hamels with five runs in the third inning of Game 1, eventually tagging him for seven (six earned). Darvish hardly fared any better, uncharacteristically giving up five runs on four home runs. Suddenly the party was on and the Jays were off and running. Suddenly it felt like 2015 again and anything was possible.
It seems that every team that makes a deep playoff run needs a completely out-of-nowhere hero—a little regarded player who steps up and plays over his head at the best possible time. For the 2016 Blue Jays, that player was Carrera. The arrival of Upton Jr. in July was supposed to make ol' Zeke expendable, but at the very end of the season he suddenly became nearly an automatic entry in Gibbons' lineup. This came about mostly because he's a lefty bat and a strong defender in the outfield—two areas where the Jays were lacking—but it continued through the sheer force of his play. Carrera, hitting mostly out of the leadoff spot, picked up five hits and a walk in the Jays' final three-game home series of the season. He continued to find himself in the lineup through the season's last series in Boston, but it was in the playoffs where he truly rose to the occasion. Two hits in the wild-card game, including a game-tying single off Tillman in the fifth—the last run scored before Encarnacion's magnificent walk-off—and then 4-for-12 with two walks and a home run in the ALDS, along with four runs scored. It wasn't quite Donaldson-esque, but for a player like Carrera it was spectacular. He picked up a pair of triples in the ALCS against Cleveland, too! It may not be enough to warrant a full-time job for him next season, but for a couple of weeks—in fact, the most crucial weeks of the season—Jays fans truly felt the power of Zeke's thunder.