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Wild Card Wilderness

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Throwing around the terms “must win” and “panic button” without ever experiencing something, is comically perplexing, especially when you have the safety net of the two wild card spots.

Ted S. Warren, AP

After waking up from their September hibernation, the Blue Jays returned to form last night in Seattle winning 10-2, and taking over top spot in the AL Wild Card standings. The big win came on the wave of a nail-biting 3-2 victory the night before, in what was the closest game to a playoff atmosphere imaginable.

How’s your heart doing after that one Blue Jay fans?

Clinging to a 3-run lead with the bases loaded in the 8th, and confidence at an all-time low after a terrible start to September, the Jays emerged victorious.

It was like watching your child tight-rope walk over Niagara Falls without a safety net.

That’s a pennant race for you.

That’s what happens when you’re closing in on “must win” baseball in September. The Jays didn’t make it easy on themselves or their fans, handing the AL East lead over to the Red Sox, but with 11-games remaining, they kept hope alive by winning the series in Seattle.

Welcome to the Wild Card wilderness.

We’ve been expecting you.

The Wild Card itself was introduced for the first time in 1994, but not implemented until ’95 because of the strike. Initially, the team with the best record that didn’t win a division (4th place overall), was given a playoff spot. This was drastically altered in 2012 with the addition of a second Wild Card berth, giving the two best records (after the three Division winners), a chance at a one-game playoff, to earn their place at the postseason dance. (Basically, you’ve created more excitement and false hope for teams, but virtually eliminated a playoff spot by adding one).

This is something entirely new to Blue Jay fans… It’s actually uncharted waters and wilderness for a team that dismantled the competition last season, en route to the AL East title, and a cozy 6-game lead over the Yankees (They barely had to break a sweat, and nerves weren’t fully tested until Game 3 of the ALDS against Texas).

Before that, the Jays hadn’t made the playoffs in 22 seasons. Yes, you read that correctly. So, the Wild Card options didn’t exist back in the day, hence a new navigational strategy without a map.

Prior to 1995, second place didn’t count for anything. You didn’t get your money back or a set of steak knives, your season was over.

The World Series teams of 1992 and 1993 closed out their seasons in relative comfort and didn’t have to tap dance on land mines down the stretch to get into the postseason. (4-up on Milwaukee in ’92, 7-up on the Yankees in ’93).

The 1991 team (who won the AL East), finished 7 games ahead of Boston.

The closest historical precedent I could find of a super-tight pennant race involving the Blue Jays, dates all the way back to 1990. The Jays had a 1.5 game lead in the East with 7 to play, and no thanks to their 4-8 record down the stretch, they wilted to the Red Sox, finishing 2 games back.

That was 26-years ago.

This means that if you’re a Blue Jays fan under 34-years young, you’ve never experienced a legit pennant/wild card race in your lifetime.

The mid to late-80’s was filled with close pennant races for Toronto. In late September, the Jays would swim with sharks often.

In 1989, they won the AL East by 2 games over Baltimore.

1988 saw the bluebirds go 10-2 down the stretch, making up 5.5 games on the Sox, but finishing 2 back. (1988 was the closest the AL East race has ever been, with 4 teams finishing within 3.5 games of Boston).

The 1987 campaign marked the biggest collapse ever, with the Blue Jays holding a 3.5 game lead with 7 to play. They lost the last 7 games of the season, all by exactly ONE run. They got swept in the final agonizing series, by the eventual champs, the Detroit Tigers. The Blue Jays missed the playoffs with a 96-66 record that year.

And in the year of their first division title, 1985, they almost let a 7-game lead evaporate, going 5-7 down the stretch to hold on to the crown, beating the Yankees by 2 games, and finishing with the best record in franchise history… 99-62.

Fast forward to 2016…

Throwing around the terms “must win” and “panic button” without ever experiencing something, is comically perplexing, especially when you have the safety net of the two Wild Card spots.

The Blue Jays close out their series in Seattle this afternoon, and go into the game presently sitting 4 games back of the Red Sox in the AL East.

With 11-games left, including a season finale in Fenway, there are all kinds of twists and turns left on the runway. If you’ve never experienced a pennant race before, I can assure you, everything can change in a New York minute. One day the sky is falling, and the next day you’re dancing in the streets. It’s a roller coaster ride for the ages, and a culmination of the slings and arrows of outrageous baseball fortune. (Or possibly the result of losing a plethora of one run games, and having a porous bullpen).

The stretch drive started last night, and Toronto delivered in front of thousands of Blue Jays fans in Seattle (2.5 hour drive from Vancouver).

I’ll provide an image from the exact moment when you exhaled…

Fans lean on a concourse rail above the manual scoreboard at Safeco Field after the Toronto Blue Jays scored eight runs against the Seattle Mariners in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

It was a positive sign heading for home, and it was accentuated by two Canadian born players hitting home runs, to the delight of the travelling Toronto circus.

The icing on the cake was seeing former Mariner, J.A. Happ, win his 20th game of the season (on the 20th of September), as the Jays spun the Mariners back out into playoff purgatory.

Even the slumping Josh Donaldson, brought the rain to Seattle in the form of a home run, a positive omen moving forward.

jd

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Aaron Sanchez (13-2, 3.17) gets the nod for the Jays this afternoon (3:40 EST) while Felix Hernandez (11-6, 3.79) goes for Seattle, as they try and avoid the sweep.

What’s in the past is in the past, you need a short memory when moving forward in a pennant race. Jays have an uphill climb to catch Boston, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Blue Jays travel home to host the Yankees (4 games) and then the Orioles (3 games), before flying to Fenway Park to close out the season, in what will surely be “must watch” TV.

Analytics and stats aside, that have led us up until this point, it now just boils down to winning ball games by any means necessary.

Gritty, grinding, sweaty palmed games, that will test your very mettle and sanity as a fan.

Get ready to send your child out on the tight rope above Niagara Falls on a daily basis.

Welcome to the official 2016 AL Wild Card race Toronto, you may want to enjoy and cherish every last minute, they don’t come around too often.

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For more on the Jays’ pennant race, check out this weeks podcast:

 

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