David Phelps' first crack at the playoffs didn't go as planned.
As a 25-year-old rookie with the Yankees, Phelps took the loss in his first two playoff games and finished his opening October with seven hits and four runs against in 3.1 innings.
It wasn't the ideal introduction to the playoffs, but he'd get a shot at redemption, right? He was just a rookie, surrounded by regular playoff staples like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira. Phelps thought he'd be back on that stage, a bunch.
But that opportunity never came. Seven different teams, eight seasons, no more playoff appearances—until the Blue Jays clinched a spot in the 2022 playoffs on Thursday.
"There's a lot of emotions," Phelps said. "It's been 10 years."
The Toronto reliever was doing some laundry on Thursday, in preparation for the upcoming road trip, when he saw the final score of the Red Sox and Orioles game that secured the Jays a playoff spot. He's been close to October before, falling just short with New York in '12 and '13, and was traded to a contender at the deadline three times, finishing outside the playoff picture every year. As the close calls and near misses racked up, he began to accept that a return to October may never come.
"I'd kind of come to terms with it," Phelps said.
That reality came into sharper focus when Phelps completely tore a muscle off his shoulder a month into the 2021 season. He thought he may never pitch again, eight seasons after his first postseason appearance and without another taste. But, with surgery, an offseason of rehab, a minor-league deal with the Jays, and a battle for a spot in Spring Training, Phelps’ quest back to October revived.
"I thought that my career was over," the reliever said. "So having a chance to pitch in the playoffs, it's gonna be a really big deal."
The comeback, and the potential for his four kids to see him pitch in the playoffs for the first time, makes Toronto's clinch even more special, Phelps said. Securing a playoff spot is just "the first step in the process" Phelps said, but it's a step worth celebrating.
Thursday's postseason clinch was the first playoff-bound season for seven players on Toronto's current 28-man roster, including rookies like Gabriel Moreno and seven-year veterans like Whit Merrifield. The Blue Jays plan on hanging around the postseason for the next few years, but so did the Yankees back when Phelps debuted. George Springer's message to his teammates ahead of the postseason is to enjoy it, and Phelps' unlikely return is a reminder of how fleeting the playoff moments can be.
"You never know if you're ever gonna get back here," Springer said. "You never know if you're gonna get a chance to play any more playoff games or even be in the hunt. You just don't know."