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Pitching was a question mark for the Jays to start the season and an exclamation point to end it

A sell out crowd at the Rogers Centre on October 7, 2022. – Lori Bennett

On Friday night, playoff baseball came to Toronto for the first time since 2016. The downtown was buzzing as a sell-out crowd streamed out of a cold October night and into a closed-dome Rogers Centre to see their Toronto Blue Jays greet the Seattle Mariners for a best-two-of-three Wild Card Series.

Fans were electrified, chanting “Go Jays Go” before one player took the field and offering cheers as even the support staff were introduced. Former Jay Edwin Encarnacion threw out the first pitch, evoking memories of the 2016 playoff run in Toronto. Their elation would be short lived.

The opening game didn’t go quite as planned for the Blue Jays. Before the game, Jays starter Alek Manoah dropped the kind of quote that lands on inspirational posters. “Pressure is something you put in your tires.” The quote didn’t translate to the game plot.

Manoah took to the mound and got ahead of Mariners lead-off man Julio Rodriguez, throwing two quick strikes. But the 0-2 pitch hit Rodriguez and walked him, and it was downhill from there. A double from Eugenio Suarez brought Rodriguez home, and then Cal Raleigh hit a two-run homerun to make it 3-0 after just one inning.

The energy was completely sucked out of the building, and the Jays did not recover. Luis Castillo took to the mound for Seattle, and the trade deadline acquisition proved his worth. Over seven and a third scoreless innings, he allowed just six singles with about half of them bloopers. Toronto’s batters were off-balance all night, and when they did get men on base they were stranded.

It was an uncharacteristic poor start for Manoah, who had a stellar first-inning record this season. He faced 133 batters and allowed just one homerun and four extra-base hits. On Friday night, he faced six batters and allowed a homerun and two extra-base hits. The pitching performance wasn’t abysmal – Manoah did settle down and allowed just one more run. Five relievers held Seattle scoreless. But that start stopped the Blue Birds mid-flight.

When the batters score exactly zero runs, it’s dirty pool to call out the pitching. But at the end of the day, the Jays ace did not match up to the Mariners ace, and the result was a 4-0 loss.

After just one post-season game, the Blue Jays were in a do or die situation on Saturday afternoon. A win would mean a series-deciding game on Sunday, and a loss would end their season.

The Jays sent Kevin Gausman to the mound to face former Blue Jay Robbie Ray, who won the Cy Young Award during his time in Toronto. It looked like it would be a pitching battle to remember – it was memorable, alright, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Jays bats got going early, something every baseball pundit on the planet identified as key for the win. Ray was chased early, after allowing four runs in just three innings. Teoscar Hernandez conquered Ray, hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the second. Seattle’s relief pitchers didn’t perform a lot better, allowing five more runs in the next four innings.

It was a night when the bats accomplished enough to win, but the pitching didn’t come through. Gausman pitched five and two-thirds innings and allowed four runs. The relievers allowed six. When you take an 8-1 lead to the top of the sixth inning, it’s fair to expect a celebration incoming. What came was a mammoth collapse.

Gausman loaded the bases and had two outs in the top of the sixth, and Manager John Schneider made the call for a pitching change. It can be argued that after allowing just one run previously, Gausman should have been given the opportunity to pitch his way out of the inning. We’ll never know if that would have been the difference, but it’s tough to blame Schneider. He thought he had enough run support to make the change, and Gausman looked to be in trouble.

Reliever Tim Mayza walked in one run and then allowed a three-run homer and suddenly it was 8-5. Fans in Toronto are well acquainted with the collapse – they could see it coming a mile away.

It came in the eighth inning. Reliever Anthony Bass allowed another run and was unable to get an out. Schneider made another pitching change, this time opting to bring in the impressive Jordan Romano to try and secure six outs for the save and to force a rubber match on Sunday.

Romano allowed a hit and struck out two, and then watched his defence come undone. A bloop – that’s what drove the collapse. A hit to shallow centre that should have been a single with maybe one run scored became a collision between Bo Bichette and George Springer, and neither with the ball in their glove. A frantic defence playing a bloop became a three-run double. The game was tied at nine going into the ninth.

Romano allowed another run in the top of the ninth, and the Jays were unable to mount a comeback. After leading the game 8-1 at one point, the Blue Jays lost 10-9 and their season was over.

It might be too early for a complete post-mortem but identifying the cause of death surely does not require too much lab work.

Neither of the Jays starting pitchers was able to go six complete innings, and both allowed four runs in five and two-thirds. You’re probably not going too deep in the playoffs if you can’t count on your two best starters to give you more than that. Had they made it to the third game, Ross Stripling was the expected starter. He has been fantastic for the Jays, but he wasn’t even in the starting rotation to start the season. If they made it to the second round and needed a fourth starter, would they have felt good about throwing out Jose Berrios?

The Blue Jays were short a starter when they started the season, and then lost Hyun-Jin Ryu to injury. At the deadline, the Mariners landed Castillo while the Jays landed a pitcher they optioned before the playoffs began.

The bullpen also needed help, and they got some at the deadline but not enough. It wasn’t an awful bullpen – they were solid on many nights, including in game 1. But they couldn’t close it out on Saturday. Good, but not contender level.

Perhaps GM Ross Atkins would have been more aggressive on the pitching front if he felt his young squad was closer to contention. Was the inability to get the bats going on Friday after getting down early an indication of maturation? Did they panic a little after the Mariners made it close on Saturday, and was that evident in the misplayed blooper? Can the season-long tendency to strand baserunners be attributed to their youth?

These are all questions for the off-season. For now, those young players and their fans are grieving what might have been and are already looking forward to what might be possible with this roster with a little experience under their belts and maybe a few off-season boosts.

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