Playing Out the Stretch

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When the highlight of the month occurs when a backup infielder strikes out a struggling player on a last place team, you know things have gone terribly, horribly wrong.

After Steve Tolleson struck out Will Middlebrooks to end the top of the 11th – the worst half inning of the 2014 season – the sarcastic cheer the fans gave to the club as they left the field might as well have been them applauding the final dagger.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.  This wasn’t the way things were supposed to end.  This year was different.  The Jays spent 61 days in first place from May to early July.  On the morning of August 1 they were 10 games above .500 and had a 3-game lead for the second AL Wild Card.  With our injured stars on the verge of a return – Lawrie!  Lind!  Encarnacion! – fans were no longer dreaming about meaningful games in September.  They were dreaming about games in October.

Of course, we now know that none of that is going to happen.  After last night’s extra innings humiliation at the hands of the last place Red Sox, Toronto now sits right at the .500 mark.  They are a full 10 games back of the Orioles, and despite the fact that Baltimore just lost Manny Machado for the season, the Jays will not catch them.  They will also not be catching the teams ahead of them for the last Wild Card spot.  Sure they are only 6.5 games back with 30 to play, but earning that spot means they have to surpass Cleveland, New York, Detroit, and Seattle.  Not a chance.

So this could easily be a post full of sadness, as I lament the late season collapse and the fact that we were so close.  So very, very close.

This could also just as easily be a post full of anger, with me spewing venom and rage at Rogers for their inability / refusal to authorize a trade at the deadline when the team was potentially just one bat or arm away from October.  Or that anger could be directed at Alex Anthopoulos for deciding to stand pat and go with internal options that clearly haven’t worked.

But I’m not going to write either of those posts.

Because the fact of the matter is this: nobody expected this team to even be anywhere near this position in the first place.

This is essentially the exact same team that lost 88 games last year, except that management swapped out J.P. Arencibia for Dioner Navarro and said “go get ’em.”  This is a team that most, if not all, baseball insiders picked to finish dead last, miles out of the playoffs.  This is a team that has had to give way too many at bats to bench players and fringe major leaguers like Juan Francisco, Steve Tolleson, Munenori Kawasaki, and Danny Valencia.  This is a team who started the season with a double play combo of Ryan Goins and Jonathan Diaz.  This is a team that has seen its players fall apart – both figuratively (Janssen has looked listless since the deadline, Rasmus looks lost, Santos and Delabar went from unhittable to unwatchable) and literally (Lawrie and Morrow can’t go for more than 15 minutes without hurting themselves).

Yet here we are, August 27th, and the Toronto Blue Jays have the same number of wins as losses, remain on the fringe of the playoff race, and are ahead of the defending World Series champions in the standings.

If anything else, this season has taught as many things.  We can no longer rely on Mr. Lawrie to be a regular contributor to the team.  He is now, unmistakably, injury prone.  Jose Reyes is still a dynamic, top-of-the-order force, but will never again win another batting title.  The veteran pitchers are what they are – no longer true aces, but very solid 2-3-4 guys.  Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar, and Ryan Goins don’t look like they will get the job done.

But most excitingly is this: the young arms look good.  Really good.  Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Drew Hutchison look like they have the potential to be an outstanding top-3 for years to come.  Daniel Norris has dominated the minor leagues and might be on the verge for 2015.

The Jays will have holes to fill, but might only be another piece or two from actually putting it all together.  Of course, with ownership refusing to become more involved, the likelihood of getting those pieces is slim-to-none.

But that is another story.

This story is all about 2014.  Yes August has been miserable, one of the worst months I can ever remember in my many years of being a Blue Jays fan.  Yes we could taste the playoffs and have watched helplessly as it has all gone to hell.  The odds are slim, but there’s still a chance we rip off a long winning streak to end the season and sneak in.

Regardless of whether or not that happens, as we mourn the end of another empty season, think about this:

I will take this awful feeling, this sour taste of coming oh-so-close and letting it slip away, over the misery of last year’s “never had a chance” any day.

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