The urgency of post-season baseball has arrived a month ahead of schedule in Toronto, Baltimore, Boston, and New York. A mere three games separate the leader from fourth place. At least one of these teams will fail to qualify for the post-season in October. Incredibly, three of these four teams may miss the post-season entirely, depending on the performances of Detroit, Kansas City, Houston, and Seattle over the next three weeks, while the AL East teams are forced to cannibalize one another down the stretch.
Some perspective is in order. Outside the AL East, the tightest divisional race is in the NL West. There, second-place San Francisco trails Los Angeles by four games. Fourth-place San Diego, meanwhile, sits 21.5 games back. Wildcard slots aside, the playoff picture for the entire league is nearly crystalized. Meanwhile, in the AL East, the current divisional leader may realistically be outright eliminated at the conclusion of game 162.
Statistically speaking, any given person likely to be reading this was probably not alive the last time the Blue Jays played a truly meaningful, stress-ridden game in September. And so, young Toronto baseball fans are becoming acquainted for the first time with the Toronto media’s tradition of daily pessimistic hot-takes—the “woe is us,” the “classic Toronto sports,” and all of the other talking points that are derived from pure panic and to which young Toronto hockey fans have long grown accustomed.
To be sure, last season was the first time in two decades that the Jays remained relevant through September. But last September, the Jays were less a baseball team and more a comedic, goliath, cartoon ball club. By the year’s end, the Jays had scored a phenomenal 891 runs, 127 more than the runner-up Yankees. How significant a gap is this? A 127-run gap is approximately what separated the Yankees from the 27th-place Philadelphia Phillies. The Jays weren’t just leading the league in offensive statistics; they were so far ahead of the competition, that at times it felt like putting Usain Bolt up against a high school track star. Last year, a starting pitcher could surrender four runs in the first inning but Jays fans’ confidence was bolstered by a sincere faith—a faith often proven right—that the offense would overcome the deficit within the next three innings. There was no stress, and success was so assured that the games were hardly meaningful.
A flurry of deadline acquisitions emphasized the surreal quality of last year. “David Price is a Blue Jay? Rogers Communications is investing in a playoff push? A sellout Tuesday game at the Dome? I must be dreaming,” were surely the thoughts of every Canadian baseball fan.
Now, the fairy tale haze of last season has faded and the Blue Jays of 2016 have regressed to something far more realistic, albeit far more stressful: an elite MLB team making a playoff push but without any guarantee of success. The trade deadline was less headline-inducing. The contractual Sword of Damocles dangles over the front office with multiple faces-of-the-franchise only a few months shy of free agency. The blown saves, on-field errors, and runners left-on-base are steadily piling up. Yet the Jays remain in the thick of the playoff hunt, scraping by in the only division that remains up for grabs.
Last year, Rogers Centre was regularly a 47,000 attendee party that ended in stress, sadness, and “maybe next year.” Now, next year has arrived. This year’s party may so far feel like less of a fairy tale, but it may yet have its happily-ever-after ending.