PHILADELPHIA — As the win total climbs for the Toronto Blue Jays, the strategic questions facing team decision makers shift, sometimes from day to day. But on the field, the challenge on the field remains the same: just win.
On that front, the Blue Jays did what they had to do Tuesday, beating the Phillies in a 18-11 slugfest at Citizens Bank Park to improve to 84-64. Ross Stripling wasn’t at his best and Julian Merryweather made this one far closer than it had to be, but Alejandro Kirk returned to the lineup with a walk and three singles from the DH spot on a night Toronto’s offence created plenty of breathing room behind 21 hits.
It was ugly, but it counts.
Though Stripling allowed five earned runs over four-plus innings, Teoscar Hernandez had a four-hit game and catcher Danny Jansen added three of his own while Matt Chapman took Kyle Gibson deep for his 27th home run of the season.
All told, a welcome lopsided win during a stressful stretch of the season. At the same time, each individual game fits into a bigger puzzle, too. The results of the Rays and Mariners games determine how much breathing room the Blue Jays have atop the AL wild card standings. Arguably more important are the results of the Yankees and Orioles games, as flip-flopping with either of those teams would represent a real step-change for the Blue Jays.
“It’s so jumbled right now,” interim manager John Schneider said Tuesday afternoon. “It changes all of the time, so I know it sounds cliché but we’re trying to focus on the task at hand. You want to put yourself in a spot to dictate your own script.”
First things first, the Blue Jays have to reach the playoffs. But since FanGraphs pegged their chance of advancing at 99.6 per cent before they beat the Phillies, let’s work under the assumption that they’re playing more than 162 this year.
Getting there is one thing. How they get there is important, too. So, tactically speaking, how do the Blue Jays approach the final two weeks of the regular season?
“You make educated decisions based on where you are in the standings and where other teams are,” Schneider said.
If there’s any chance of upsetting the Yankees, the Blue Jays must push, as a first-round bye would eliminate the risk that comes with a three-game wild-card series. The Yankees began the day 5.5 games ahead of the Blue Jays, but play three games in Toronto next week, so there’s a chance to gain ground head to head.
With that in mind, the Blue Jays could keep Alek Manoah on regular rest for Friday’s start against the Rays and set up a potential Manoah appearance in Wednesday’s finale against New York.
At some point in the upcoming Rays series, Mitch White will join the rotation, but the details there have yet to be determined. One scenario in play would see White, who’s with the Blue Jays in Philadelphia on the taxi squad, starting Saturday.
Confirmed rotation plans
Tuesday vs. Phillies – Stripling
Wednesday vs. Phillies – Kevin Gausman
Possible rotation plans
Thursday vs. Rays – Jose Berríos
Friday vs. Rays – Manoah
Saturday vs. Rays – White
Sunday vs. Rays – Stripling
Monday vs. Yankees – Gausman
Tuesday vs. Yankees – Berríos
Wednesday vs. Yankees – Manoah
The state of the bullpen will impact the Blue Jays’ decisions, as will the results elsewhere in the AL playoff race. For instance, if the Yankees gain further ground on the Blue Jays, there’s a case to be made for finding Manoah additional rest. Already, he’s setting career highs in innings with each successive start and his most important outings have yet to come.
“It’s fluid,” Schneider said. “Having options is good. A lot will be dictated in the next three days.”
The Blue Jays had to use their bullpen for five innings after Stripling’s exit with Merryweather allowing five earned runs and throwing 29 pitches for his worst outing of the year.
Ideally, they’d line up Gausman and Manoah for the wild card round, but that duo may also be needed on the final weekend of the season. Either way, the Blue Jays, Mariners and Rays look like they’re headed for an especially close finish. The top team among those three gets home field advantage while the last finisher may get an easier path to the ALCS with the AL Central winner followed by the Yankees.
Under those circumstances, the second wild card spot is arguably the worst place to be, creating plenty of incentive for the Blue Jays to keep winning. But at this point, it’s far too early to think about finessing a finish. The more they win now, the more options they’ll have later. In other words, keep the blowouts coming.
“You play to win every game,” Schneider said. “However it shakes out, you want to be A) playing good, B) getting in and C) playing good when we get in.”