When the Toronto Blue Jays reported for spring training on Feb. 22, almost all of the players spoke about the frustration of being constantly reminded that they were the holders of a record that nobody wants: the Blue Jays had gone the longest of any of the teams in the four major North American sports without qualifying for the post-season. A combination of bad luck, bad personnel decisions and being stuck in a powerhouse of a division that includes baseball royalty like the Yankees and Red Sox, have all conspired against Canada’s team to see them excluded from the postseason in each and every year since 1993.
After winning back-to-back MLB championships in 1992 and 1993, the Blue Jays entered into a slump of mediocrity that saw them finish either third or fourth in their division in 16 of the following 22 seasons, rarely finishing last but also never mounting a serious charge to get into the playoffs.
There have been rare moments of hope during the drought, like in 2006 when the Blue Jays bought big in free agency and subsequently finished the year with 87 wins and 75 losses. Regression was inevitable however, as injuries to the core of that team would return Toronto to the rank of astoundingly average.
Another high point for the franchise in recent times was the blockbuster trade that saw Toronto mortgage the future of their team to add perennial all-star Jose Reyes as well as two solid starting pitchers in 2012. It was just more disappointment for Blue Jays fans however, as that season and those that followed it saw an explosive offence unable to drag a lacklustre pitching staff to a playoff berth.
Throughout the first half of this season it was looking like yet another chapter of a promising yet ultimately unsuccessful season would be added to Toronto’s big book of misery. Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista were all blasting the ball out of the park seemingly at will, but a torn ACL to ace pitcher Marcus Stroman and a shaky bullpen combined to see the Blue Jays have more losses than wins at the midway point of the season.
The underlying numbers were in the Blue Jays’ favour however. A record of 53 wins and 51 losses at the MLB trade deadline may seem like the definition of mediocrity but the Blue Jays also had a league-leading run differential, having scored over 100 more runs than they allowed during those first 104 games. This massive run differential allowed general manager Alex Anthopolous, who had remained ominously quiet on the trade front since the move for Reyes in 2012, to take a gamble. Anthopolous went out at the trade deadline and added two immensely important players in David Price, a former winner of the American League Pitcher of the Year Award and five time all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Those transactions are going to be looked back upon for years to come as the turning point that allowed Toronto to break their post-season drought. Since acquiring those players, the Blue Jays are 40 and 16, with Price victorious in 9 of his 11 starts, and Tulowitzki providing a steady hand at shortstop where the aging Reyes was struggling.
The most surprising thing about the turnaround this season is just how un-Blue Jays-like it has been. Big injuries haven’t shaken the team into a losing skid, key players haven’t gone cold down the stretch and most surprisingly, they are finding ways to win important games. The two big names acquired at the deadline have been crucial, but so to have the young arms in the bullpen, the always explosive offence and a starting rotation of pitchers that have all found a consistent game at the same time.
A constant refrain in the sporting world is that making the playoffs is only a job half done, that a championship is the sole determinant of success. While you will hear Blue Jays players repeating this throughout the playoffs, for many Jays fans the exorcising of 22 years worth of demons is sure to be cause for celebration no matter what happens in the post-season.