On September 2nd last year, the Blue Jays sat on the fringe of the playoff discussion. With 30 games to play, they were five games back of a Wild Card spot, with the Athletics, Mariners, and Red Sox between them and October.
We all know how that story ended. A 21-9 record down the stretch pulled them ahead of the two AL West teams and up to 91 wins, but it wasn't good enough. One win short.
This year, the teams and exact standings are different, but the final chase remains the same. With 30 games left, the Blue Jays will decide their fate.
"We're coming up on September with our destiny in our control," GM Ross Atkins said last week. "A lot of games against teams that were competing for these final spots with, feel like we're going to get hot and make a nice run."
If you ask the playoff odds, the Jays are in good shape. After a three-game sweep of the Pirates, Toronto sits with a 94.6% chance to earn a playoff spot, per FanGraphs. They even have a 9.6% shot at the division and the third-best chance to win the World Series from the American League.
But we're also at the point of the season where playoff odds and Pythagorean records don't really mean much anymore. With so few games left, one good or bad stretch will determine an entire campaign. They don't have to be pretty, like Toronto's Pittsburgh sweep, but all that matters this time of year are wins.
The Baltimore Orioles sit with a 7.8% chance of making the postseason, but they're also a good week away from vaulting themselves into an October driver's seat. The O's are 2.5-games back of Toronto for the final AL playoff spot, and the Blue Jays will have ample opportunity to build that gap themselves. Of Toronto's remaining 30 games, 10 come against the Orioles, giving both bird squads a chance to take care of business. That business begins on Monday. Toronto also has nine games remaining against Tampa Bay, the only AL team in playoff contention with a harder remaining schedule than the Jays.
One advantage the Jays do hold, at least over the Orioles, is that this playoff push is nothing new, with plenty of players versed in meaningful September baseball. Currently, 17 of Toronto's 28-man roster are returning players from last year's team, a group that's painfully aware how important each game is and they've added other key veterans who've led successful September runs before.
Matt Chapman was integral for back-to-back A's Wild Card pushes in 2018 and 2019, George Springer and Jackie Bradley Jr. have clinched plenty of playoff berths, and Kevin Gausman was part of a few tense September races earlier in his career.
Helping push the Orioles into the Wild Card game in 2016 and a key figure in the Dodgers vs Giants battle late last season, Gausman loves this time of year, he said. On top of liking the return of football and cooler weather, he finds himself playing his best baseball when the games matter most. With a career 3.93 ERA, Gausman drops to 3.52 in September while rocking his highest K/9 of any month and the lowest opponents OPS.
"You want to play meaningful games at the end of the year," Gausman said. "But it's definitely a mental grind when that is the case."
Toronto could use a few other players following Gausman's path and raising their games this month. The Blue Jays have yet to play their best baseball this year, GM Ross Atkins said, and if Toronto does find another level of production down the stretch—or even improved consistency—they'll surely lock up a playoff spot.
More than half the Blue Jays roster knows what it means to fall short this time of year. They have 30 games to put themselves on the other side of defeat in 2022. It's where any team wants to be this time of year, but now it's time to execute.
"It's way more exciting when you're in it," Gausman said.