In any series between an eighth and first seed, it’s going to be hard to find concrete advantages for the underdog — in any sport. Unfortunately for the Toronto Blue Jays, that’s the case in their wild-card matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays that opens Tuesday.
The Rays don’t just have the better record, they’ve got a three-game rotation of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton compared to the Blue Jays’ group of Hyun-Jin Ryu, probably Taijuan Walker and a question mark. Tampa also has home field advantage, in a venue the Blue Jays despise, a better defensive team, superior base running and a far sharper bullpen.
That last point stings for the Blue Jays, too, because at one point their relief corps led the league in WAR, and it was arguably the driving force behind their strong 15-11 August. You could argue a deep bullpen full of multi-inning threats, and back-end power, had been this team’s identity. It’s a little tougher to say that now, considering that group posted a 6.77 ERA and -0.9 WAR in September. Julian Merryweather is out, Jordan Romano’s availability remains in doubt, and the return of Ken Giles didn’t take. Nate Pearson bolsters this group, but after a hard season where a great deal was demanded of them, they’re not the same.
Considering the state of the Blue Jays pitching staff, it’s not realistic to expect them to keep the Rays off the board. Instead, the best hope this team has resides in its bats. The Blue Jays’ lineup produced a .255/.325/.441 line on the season, good for an above-average wRC+ of 108. That probably undersells what they’re capable of.
Bo Bichette played less than half the season. He’s back. Teoscar Hernadnez missed a handful of games in September and has made his way back to the lineup. Alejandro Kirk has emerged as one of the most improbable spark plugs imaginable.
The team also has a pair of hitters who are on fire in Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The former has been one of the best hitters in the league all month, putting up a .368/.394/.653 line in September. The latter has turned on the jets lately with a torrid last two weeks where he slugged .333/.358/.627 and struck out only three times.
This is a lineup worth believing in. They’re not the Los Angeles Dodgers or Atlanta Braves, but the only key contributor who’s missing is Rowdy Tellez, and they’ve got the ability to break games open and close the gap when the pitching staff lets them down.
When the Blue Jays started the season the assumption was that any step forward they took would be predicated on the growth of the big three of their position player core. That hasn’t necessarily been the case this year as Bichette has missed time, and neither Guerrero Jr. or Cavan Biggio took major steps forward. It was the bullpen — as well as breakthroughs by Hernandez and Tellez — that drove this team. It doesn’t look like they can do that anymore, which means it’s up to this young lineup.
‘Little things’, big difference
Defence and base running are often put under the umbrella of “the little things,” because these are areas where it's assumed that teams can avoid gaffes with discipline and solid baseball IQ. There’s some truth to that in the sense that errors — whether they come on the bases or in the field — are usually unforced in a way that pitching or hitting mistakes are not. If you miss a 97 mph fastball, it’s usually not a baseball IQ issue, nor is hanging a slider.
However, the best way to make a difference defensively, or on the basepaths, is to make something improbable happen, which tends to take talent as opposed to just focus. There’s nothing Randal Grichuk can do mentally to cover ground like Kevin Kiermaier. So, when we talk about the Rays having an advantage in these areas, calling them “the little things” feels a little bit unfair.
However you want to slice it, though, when it comes to defence and base running, the Rays have a significant advantage across the board.
A competitive season series
One thing the Blue Jays have going for them is that they’ve played the Rays hard in 2020. Their 4-6 record against the club isn’t ideal, but they actually outscored Tampa 48-44 and not one of their losses came by more than three runs.
It’s not hard to go back into those 10 games, sprinkle a few breaks the other way, and imagine a world where Toronto got the best of the season series. For instance, in their first two losses in the season-opening series, Sam Gaviglio and Shun Yamaguchi pitched in the ninth inning or later when the Blue Jays were leading or tied. They won’t have to worry about giving guys work and trying to keep the best relievers fresh this time around.
The Blue Jays fighting the Rays tooth-and-nail and ultimately outscoring them doesn’t prove they’re a better team. There’s a reason the Rays went 34-16 in all other matchups while the Blue Jays went 28-22. It is a sign that Toronto’s unlikely to take this one lying down, though.
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