Blue Steel: The 2015 Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays are one of the more fascinating sports franchises today. They are, like the Toronto Raptors, a major team apart of a US sports league outside of the United States. They are also the only team to appear in a World Series outside of the United States. The early 1990s were heaven if you were a Toronto Blue Jays fan. Between 1991 and 1993 the Toronto Blue Jays were the best team in baseball. They had appeared in the American League Championship Series three times and won twice. As an expansion team in 1977 Toronto had one major rival that was also up north. The Montreal Expos, now the Washington Nationals, played very seldomly against the Blue Jays. However, other teams cruised past the Blue Jays in their own division. The Orioles, Red Sox, and Yankees had all won a World Series; Toronto had never been to a playoff game until 1985. It seemed that the Blue jays were in a system that was unfair to them in the American League.
The 1990s presented a much different story. The Blue Jays won the World Series in both 1992 and 1993 behind several future Hall of Famers in Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. However, the glory would soon fade as following 1994, the Blue Jays were playing like a team that could not even compete for a Little League World Series. Their playoff hopes dashed almost as soon as they had arrived on the stage. Not to mention, a number of notable arrivals ended in disaster for the Blue Jays. Roger Clemens brief tenure brought hope, but it did not end well as eventually the upstart New York Yankees took him away as well. Between 1993 and 2015, the Toronto Blue Jays won 0 playoff games, had 0 appearances in the playoffs and were not even division contenders in those years. It seemed as though they had been relegated to the bottom of the baseball world. Then in 2014 it seemed that despite all hope being lost something positive happened that created one of the single-season and most hyped teams in sports.
Close, but no Cigar
The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays were some of the better and some of the worst baseball that had been seen in a while. Winning 83 games and losing 79 was a plus but it was not enough to secure a playoff spot or even earn recognition from those around baseball. The Blue Jays division was growing ever better as the heavy hitters were the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, and Orioles. The Orioles were a World Series contender by this point before their own collapse would take place. The Yankees were fresh off a disappointing 2014 campaign without star Robinson Cano and the Red Sox were in a post-World Series winning campaign that played out much worse than they expected it to. Despite all of these short comings the Orioles and Yankees finished ahead of the Blue Jays and even the American League Wild Card teams finished better than Toronto each having at least 95 wins. The previous season the Blue Jays had signed Mark Buehrle from the Miami Marlins hoping that he was what they needed, a new Roy Halladay and a chance to revive a once great career. Also, they had signed Jose Reyes who was going to be the biggest infielder in the Major Leagues with his newly signed contract in Toronto. Around the team there were already some big names in the hitting department including Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista but still more was needed than simply adding a power pitcher and star infielder. The home run twins provided more of a show than a winning franchise.
The Blue Jays though had a roster that rivaled most teams of the time. They had a sufficient R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ, and Brett Lawrie. Outstanding outfielders in Bautista and Pillar but they lacked pieces that could put them in the World Series conversation. They were more of an entertainment regular season piece than something that a viewer would want to watch going up against the World Series champion Red Sox, at the time. Thus, it was decided that 2015 would be a different story and the Blue Jays set out to once again assemble a team of avengers that could put them back into the World Series. What they came up with was unbelievable and provided a catalyst for what would come.
2014 Offseason and 2015 Spring Training
The Initial move was to supply the infield as Encarnacion could not do all of the work himself. The Blue Jays found an interesting 3rd baseman who could provide that “can do” attitude that the Blue Jays needed so well. They signed Josh Donaldson from the Oakland A’s for five players, one of which was Lawrie. Donaldson would become a staple for the offense and defense that the Blue Jays needed. Playing the hot-corner was his game and at the time Donaldson was a hot commodity. Signing with Toronto put him closer to a World Series than he would have ever had in Oakland. Also, in the dumping process, the Blue Jays got rid of Adam Lind and signed Marco Estrada from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Blue Jays were thought to be nuts for even going as far as giving away starting pitcher J.A. Happ in December of 2014. He was sent to the Mariners. It appeared that cleaning house and bringing in more talent was the name of the game in Toronto. Getting rid of Lawrie was only the tipping point. In November, the Pittsburgh Pirates released their catcher Russell Martin who had success around baseball prior and was known for being an exceptional hitter as well as playing extremely well behind the plate. The Blue jays scooped up Martin as a free agent for a 5-year $82 million contract which even included a donation to the Jays Care Foundation. Various other players were taken in free agency, none of which went on to be stars around the league, but they did make a bold decision in signing Justin Smoak, a key first baseman for the Mariners who had been released.
With all of these trades that occurred the Blue Jays now had to prove their worth on the field and not be a second-tier team as they had been in the past. Their goal should have at least been a playoff appearance and eventually a World Series, but Spring Training changed this dramatically. Marcus Stroman, an eventual core pitcher in the Blue Jays rotation had earned some time in Spring Training after recognition for his performances in 2014. Stroman had shown promise throughout training and was eventually the Blue Jays go-to-starter going into 2015. Furthermore, the Blue Jays were reliever heavy, Roberto Osuna had shown promise and became a leading reliever for the Blue Jays. It seemed that the Blue Jays were going to attain their destiny.
A Rough Start
The Blue Jays arrived on the scene looking for vengeance and getting the exact opposite. They played 23 games in the opening month of April and finished under .500 winning 11 of them. Tough divisional opponents in the Orioles and the Red Sox would give them hell. They started out well going 4-2 through 6 but then the collapses ensued, the Blue Jays went on two losing streaks in the same month, each being 4 games. The seemed a little irritable to start as well. It seemed that expectations had gotten the better of them. Yet in a month, opening a season with a brand new team could be difficult. Everyone may not have been up to speed with management and playing style. However, it was clear that the Blue Jays were not the destructive force that had been shown in Spring Training. Their pitching was a problem as well and was a big cause in their losses as they had blown several saves, lost games by larger than 3 run margins and it seemed that they were hurting themselves more than other teams.
Jose Bautista was the biggest problem for the Blue Jays that month. He hurt his calf in one game and nearly got into a scuffle in another. Furthermore, he had a shoulder strain. Bautista being the star of the Blue Jays needed to be sound and sufficient and was far from this in his first month. The Blue Jays did not get much better in May either. They had lost painstakingly in 12 one run games, all of which they could have easily won. The Blue Jays problems were not Bautista in this month but the fact that they could not hit and hold a lead in the month. It seemed like another Blue Jays slump was ahead and the fans were not having it. Even sportswriters who had given the Blue Jays a chance to win it all were turning away from their predictions seeing that what was happening was setting the club up for disaster and then July turned a bit of a miracle.
July 2015, The beginning of a turnaround
July is a make it or break it month as it features two important events. The first is the All-Star break, many teams can have their players relax for an extended period and others can get much needed relief from the difficulty of playing over 80 games in over 4 months. The second is the trade deadline. During this period lots of changes are made to prepare playoff contention teams for an eventual playoff run and hopefully a championship. The Blue Jays capitalized on the trade deadline for two players who would become essential to their lineup that year. After losing Marcus Stroman, their star ace in the opening month due to a strained ACL, the Blue Jays needed to fix their rotation to surround another pitcher that could compete like Stroman had. They found their replacement and addition in David Price. Price had been clutch for the division opponent Rays and for Toronto he fit the bill perfectly. Price was at the time known as one of the best, if not, the best pitcher in baseball. Why would the Detroit Tigers give up Price, well the Blue Jays needed someone, and Price appeared to be unhappy with the Tigers. Despite signing him earlier that year for a $19.75 million contract the Tigers had enough of Price, and he had enough of them. Moving to Toronto was a blessing as he provided much help for the relievers and the Blue Jays run scoring in the second half of the season showed their potential for a World Series. Price though was only helping the pitching core; the Blue Jays needed a defensive minded player who could also put runs on the board to help the bullpen. They found Troy Tulowitzki, a hard-nosed shortstop from the Colorado Rockies. Playing with the Rockies since 2006, it was hard to pull him away from the franchise that he had called home for more than a decade. In the exchange for Troy, the Blue Jays gave three players including star Jose Reyes who had not lived up to expectations in Toronto. Tulowitzki was hungry to win a World Series and was “happy to play for a contender.” In his debut, he went 3 for 5 with a homerun, and two doubles. The Blue Jays then saw something that they had not experienced since the 1990s. They were up for a playoff spot and more importantly they were atop of the division as they returned to action in August winning 21 of their 27 games that month putting them with a 74-57 record going into the make it or break it month. Bautista had been hitting better, Donaldson had been getting on base more and forcing more RBI opportunities and the lineup was finally coming together as it had been designed to. The Blue Jays would even best the Yankees in their remaining series against each other losing just 6 games to the Yankees the entire season. Toronto was now in the conversation and still work needed to be done. September was around the corner and the hype was growing ever larger surrounding the return of Marcus Stroman.
September 2015, March to the Playoffs
In professional baseball the month of July leading to the All-Star break is an important month, but it is worthless if a team collapses in September. The month has been cruel to lots of teams in the past as the Angels were ahead of the Seattle Mariners by over 9 games at one point in the 1995 and they lost 14 games in the month giving the Mariners the division title. The Boston Red Sox in 2014 were up for a Wild Card spot in 2014 and embarrassingly lost all but 3 of their games that month. They missed the playoffs and were eternally shamed. The Blue Jays went on numerous losing streaks throughout 2015 but if there was a time not to have one it was now. September was cruel to some teams and nicer to others. The Blue Jays performed better in that month than any team in the game at that time. Their weapon was back. Marcus Stroman who had not thrown a ball all year due to ACL complications was now back and ready to see the playoffs through for the Blue Jays. He pitched in four games in September, won all 4 of them and allowed only 5 runs. He performed in legendary fashion along with R.A. Dickey who fought harder than he ever had in his career, Dickey as a result of this month maintained a 3.91 ERA going into the playoffs. David Price maintained a 2.91 seasonal ERA which he accrued from his half of the season with the Detroit Tigers. The Blue Jays by the end of the month had lost 9 games and won 18 securing their spot as Division Champions and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. They won 93 games and lost 69 in on the year and beat the Yankees by 6 games. Furthermore, they maintained a strong home record of 53 and 28 but their road record was more the concern as they lost 41 and won 40. The Yankees and Astros qualified for the Wild Card placing but each was eliminated. The opening round of the playoffs would be one for the ages as the Blue Jays would face off against the AL West Division Champions the Texas Rangers in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs.
American League Division Series
Initially being the 2nd and 3rd seed the series to decide who would play the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS was not thought of being of any importance. The Rangers were a clearly superior team with Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus being their leading supporters. Furthermore, they earned more recognition from playing in a stronger division that year than the Blue Jays. The Rangers though did not have homefield advantage in the series and the first two games would be played in Toronto. David Price was chosen to lead the Blue Jays in the best of five series. His opening night ended horribly. He gave up 5 runs in 7 innings and was pulled. In response the Blue Jays added two runs, but this was not enough for a victory clearly and the Rangers were atop the Blue Jays. The mastery of the Rangers was that their bullpen was just as good as the hitters for the Blue Jays. Holding Toronto down and keeping the ball in play for easy outs was the only strategy. The Blue Jays being a long ball team needed to hit long to get wins and the Rangers had learned from the 2011 World Series how to handle a team like this. Game 2 was a disaster as well for Toronto, but the Blue Jays had played much better in this matchup as opposed to the first one. Stroman started for the Blue Jays and played a strong seven innings against then superior pitcher Cole Hamels. Stroman held the Rangers to three runs which was a stronger start than Price the night before, but Hamels gave up four before being taken off the mound. This game came down to relief pitching on the Rangers behalf. Giving up four runs to a starter was not a good look but giving up 0 runs in the next three innings to relievers was what restored confidence. The Blue Jays were unable to finish the job that Stroman had assigned them when he started that evening. They gave up another 3 runs as the game did not end until the 14th inning though. Toronto put up a better fight in this game and both sides remained scoreless but eventually heart took the place of ability. The Blue Jays would lose 6-4. They were now headed for elimination in a period of two games as they were now headed to Arlington, Texas to be fed to the Rangers.
Game 3 was a winner take-all situation for the Blue Jays. If they lost they went home and if they won they still had to win one more in Texas to return to Toronto for Game 5. The Blue Jays were not the ideal road team that season either. Starting in Game 3 was Marco Estrada who held the Rangers to one run in his 6 1⁄3 appearance. The bats finally came alive as the Blue Jays scored 5 runs that game and earned their first elimination game win in franchise history. The series was now headed to Game 4. Still with the advantage the Rangers started Derek Holland which turned into a disastrous Game 4 for them. Holland gave up three home runs and left the game in the 2nd inning. The score was 6-0 and the Rangers were now in a panic mode of sorts. Starting for the Blue Jays was R.A. Dickey who would be making his playoff debut at 41 years old. Dickey did not last very long but pitched his way to 4 solid innings. The Blue Jays would give up four runs in the remaining innings as David Price came to rescue Dickey out of a jam. The Blue Jays though did not give in and gained 2 more runs and won 8-4. Now it was time for Game 5 in which the winner would go on to play the Kansas City Royals.
Game 5 was the largest watched game of the entire series and the Blue Jays initially appeared to be underdogs when the series started and now they were tied. Toronto returned to the Roger Center to a sold out crowd that seemed louder than anything MLB had ever seen. Toronto had been miserable for almost two decades by this point and wanted payback. Worst of all, the Rangers had the series in reach and gave it away to the Blue Jays. The Rogers Center that night would turn into chaos at several points due to emotions based on fans and players actions a like. Game 5 started with Cole Hamels and Marcus Stroman, just as Game 2 had done. Stroman needed a victory to secure his spot as officially back in action and Hamels needed to simply escape the Rogers Center. The Rangers scored first on a base hit in the first inning. Then in the 3rd, Shin-Soo Choo, Designated Hitter for the Rangers, hit a one run shot to send the game to 2-0 Rangers. It seemed that the Rangers where going to be heading to Kansas City at this point. Stroman had overthrown his first three innings but still remained steadfast. Then, Ben Revere got on base in the bottom of the 3rd. Immediately after, Jose Bautista got on base with a double that sent Revere in. Score now 2-1 Rangers; the heat was on and the Rangers knew it. However, the next couple of innings provided very little excitement in the offensive department as the Rangers and Blue Jays would not score. The game became a pitching duel as many groundouts and fly balls sent batters back to their dugouts. The 6th Inning brought back the excitement of the Blue Jays as Edwin Encarnacion, a notable home run hitter on the team hit a shot and tied the game 2-2 making matters even worse for the Rangers. The Blue Jays now had the momentum heading into the 7th.
In the top of the 7th, pitcher Aaron Sanchez was throwing against Shin-Soo Choo, who started the scoring off earlier. On a pitch that was called a strike Soo Choo by pure coincidence placed his bat in the line of fire between Russell Martin and Aaron Sanchez. Rougned Odor was already on 3rd base. Russell Martin’s throw hit Choo’s bat and entered the playing field in front of Choo, while a sleeping Blue Jays defense was looking away Odor sprinted for home. Odor scored and the crowd began rioting due to the ball being called dead by the home plate umpire. The call was reviewed for over 30 minutes and the next day was reviewed on all sports talk shows. Following the review, the ball was voted live as it did not return to Sanchez’s hands after the pitch he had just thrown. Toronto revolted in a way that only Yankees fans were thought to react. Throwing objects from beer bottles to other merchandise the Blue Jays fan base acted like animals for the next 20 minutes. However, now the game was 3-2 Rangers and the Blue Jays felt that this play could have ended the series for good. The top of the 7th Inning had its own problematic ending but the bottom of the inning was heartbreaking if you are a Rangers fan. The Rangers would commit 3 errors, two of which would be committed by Elvis Andrus. It seemed that the inning would only get worse though as again the Blue Jays fans rioted throwing things on the field in excitement instead of rage. The Blue Jays tied the game on a Josh Donaldson single. The next at bat though was one for the ages. Jose Bautista hit a 3-run home run and performed a “bat flip” which is in modern digital media a tremendously popular meme. The Blue Jays would go on to win 6-3 with Bautista’s home run. They were headed to the ALCS to face Kansas City.
Loss to the Royals, End of 2015
The hopes and dreams of the Blue Jays were forever dashed when they lost to the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. The Royals went on to win the World Series that year but the Blue Jays performed well beyond their expectations from the beginning of the season. The end of 2015 would come too soon. David Price left the following season and he was eventually the first of all to leave Toronto’s golden season team. Donaldson, Martin, Stroman, Dickey, Bautista, Encarnacion, and Tulowitzki are no longer on the active roster for the Blue Jays and a new era appears to be happening with the arrival of Cavan Biggio and Vlad Jr. Nevertheless, the 2015 Blue Jays performed exceptionally as they controlled all facets of the game, especially hitting the ball beyond the outfield walls. They were brash, they were arrogant, and most of all they were winners up until when it mattered most.