It all starts tonight.
For the seventh time in club history, the Toronto Blue Jays will play in the American League Championship Series, this time facing the Cleveland Indians (or the Cleveland Baseball Team if you’re Jerry Howarth (good for him by the way)).
Depending on what time of year you look back on, this ALCS appearance is either fully expected, or completely unexpected. The Jays entered 2016 with a ton of hope and expectations, stumbled along for a few months, got hot, then nearly bottomed out in September.
But who cares. They made it, and that’s all that matters.
Toronto is 2 – 4 in franchise history in the ALCS, and have entered prior series in a variety of different manners.
In 1985 they were a 99 win juggernaut but were facing postseason pressure for the first time, so expectations were tempered.
In 1989 they were clearly overmatched by a powerful Oakland A’s club led by Henderson, McGwire, and Canseco.
In 1991, ’92, ’93 there were heavy favourites, a powerhouse team expecting to finally break through. Twice they did.
Finally, last season they were baseball’s hottest team, riding a huge wave of momentum that started in August and carried right through to the 7th inning of Game 5 against Texas. But though they were hot, and most of us expected them to beat Kansas City, I don’t think many were surprised when they didn’t. After all, everybody – the players, management, and fans – were almost delirious after the bat flip, riding an emotional high that fogged over the ALCS.
But now it’s 2016, and things feel different. There are so many different angles to this ALCS that it’s hard to simply compare the teams and pick a winner.
First, this is a Toronto team that was given up on and left for dead as late as the 8th inning on October 1st, when during a must-win game in Boston Roberto Osuna balked in the game tying run. But they recovered, won the game in the 9th, and have not lost since. Everything is hot right now, peaking at the same time.
Second, there is the Edwin and Jose angle. On September 29th, it looked fairly obvious that each had played his final game in Toronto as a Blue Jay, a disheartening 4-0 loss to the Orioles. But something happened, and now neither man refuses to believe that. Something keeps drawing the best out of them, especially at home, something magical that is hoping, or willing, to keep them in Toronto for just a little bit longer.
Third, there is the guts factor. Last season everything simply fell into place and the Jays rode the wave as far as it would take them. This year, they have gutted out each and every win, seemingly from Opening Day onward. You have Donaldson gutting his way through injury to hit .538 in the ALDS. You have Tulowitzki gutting his way through one of his worst seasons at the plate and leading this team into the playoffs. You have a starting staff gutting themselves through injury (Estrada), doubt (Stroman), and innings limits (Sanchez), to lead the AL in ERA and then dominate the playoffs. Then you have Osuna pulling himself from the Wild Card game with a potentially devastating shoulder injury, then returning to gut his way through not one but two multi-inning saves.
John Gibbons called this team battle tested after they clinched their playoff spot that Sunday afternoon in Boston. I think that is the most accurate term that can be applied. You didn’t get that feeling from the 2015 team, or the ’85, ’89, or ’91 teams.
This is a team of 25 players who simply refuse to lose.
Cleveland is a good team with a great story. They have speed, they play good defense, have a great bullpen, get timely hitting, and can pitch. It should be tight series. It will be a tough series.
But there is magic in the air in Toronto. And I don’t think anybody is ready to see it go away yet.