| October 2, 2021, 6:01 PM
TORONTO — Luis Rivera only roughly remembers the details from the crazy final weekend in 2016 that resulted in the first, and so far only trip to the wild-card game for the Toronto Blue Jays. But now, as then, the third base coach is clear on the ideal way to handle these days of angst and games of pressure.
“I know that they understand what is at stake,” he said before working out the club’s infielders Saturday afternoon. “But I want them to see who’s pitching, who we’re facing and try to play that instead of thinking about, we’ve got to win this game, we’ve got to make this play.”
“That’s the way you should approach it, taking the pressure away,” he added. “Just go out, you’re good enough and let your abilities take care of it.”
The Blue Jays did precisely that hours later in a 10-1 drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles that set up a do-or-die regular-season finale for just the fourth time in franchise history.
Home runs from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, George Springer, Bo Bichette and Danny Jansen — pushing the season total to a franchise-record 258 — and yet another ace-calibre outing from rookie Alek Manoah kept the heat on the teams they’re chasing.
On Sunday, when Hyun Jin Ryu gets the ball, they’ll need some help from others for a similar outcome to 2016, when several scenarios were in play before the Blue Jays ended up with the first wild-card spot, and to avoid the heartbreak of 1987 and the frustration of 1990.
“We don’t have pressure, the pressure is on (the wild-card contenders the Blue Jays are chasing),” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “We’re going to continue to go out there, like we’ve been doing since the beginning of the season, play hard every game and we’ll see what happens. But we don’t feel pressure.”
To ensure at least a tiebreaker game, the Blue Jays (90-71) will need a loss from either the New York Yankees (91-70), pounded 12-2 by the Tampa Bay Rays, or the Boston Red Sox (91-70), who rallied in the ninth to beat the Washington Nationals 5-3.
The Seattle Mariners (89-71), home to the Angels, also remain in the mix and there are enough permutations to make your head spin.
“I’m getting more excited every day,” Hernandez said before the game. “I mean, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the American League wild card, we don’t know who’s going into the playoffs. We’re just going to keep putting pressure, try to do our thing and try to win ballgames. That’s my goal.”
The Blue Jays employed that approach perfectly Saturday, Manoah coolly shutting down the Orioles in a two-strikeout first before Guerrero followed Springer’s base hit with his 47th homer of the season, matching Eddie Mathews’ mark for most home runs by a player 22 or younger.
Hernandez’s 32nd later that inning made it 3-0, Springer’s 20th in the second doubled the advantage, while Bichette’s 29th to open the fifth and Jansen’s 11th four batters later opened up a 10-1 edge to the delight of 29,916 at Rogers Centre.
Manoah continued to show a poise beyond his years in again keeping a game under control for the Blue Jays, who are now 16-4 in his 20 starts. He allowed one hit, a Trey Mancini double cashed in on Ryan McKenna’s groundball, over seven innings and struck out 10, unfazed this month as he’s pitched in games of growing importance.
“Everything matters, every pitch matters,” said Manoah. “You know, you give up a home run and next thing you know, it could be trouble, so the level of focus I feel like is extremely important and I’ve been able to do that. Like today, 7-1, that heater slipped away to (Austin) Hayes, (hitting him to open the fourth inning), and that was me telling myself, stop focus and lock it back in and then was able to lock it in there. So just continue to keep that focus on every pitch in these big games and understanding that every pitch matters.”
Beyond the win, the seven innings from Manoah also allowed manager Charlie Montoyo to rest his leverage arms who will all be available Sunday. Montoyo even mused about using Jordan Romano for more than three outs again if needed.
As a result, the Blue Jays don’t expect to need Jose Berrios in the bullpen, even if all hands will still surely be on deck. Manoah, of course, won’t be and he described waiting for his turn Saturday as “torture — I really wanted to be on the mound. Today couldn’t come quick enough.”
Lefty Bruce Zimmermann starts for the Orioles and will face the Blue Jays for the first time, which at times has posed challenges for them. Still, three of their homers Saturday came off John Means, a good pitcher who has frustrated them in the past, underlining their ability to remain in the moment, which is far easier said than done.
What had the makings of a trap game quickly turned into a rout.
“I’m trying to do my thing and not change anything that I’ve been doing for the last two years now, try to trust in that, not lose trust in the things that I know I can do, stay positive and go out there and compete,” said Hernandez, who explained that while he can live with wrong outcomes as long as he’s used the right process, making outs while chasing results, “makes me mad, really, really mad.”
“Because I know when you try to do too much, you’re not going to be good on the field,” he replied. “I’m working on that and trying to keep myself in the same mindset for the whole season. Try to be consistent. That’s one of the biggest things for a baseball player. And when you put too much there, the result is not going to be positive. The result is not going to be fun. The result is not going to be what you want it to be. That’s hard, but this is what we’re supposed to do in baseball and we have to control that to be in position at the end of the year.”
Well, they’re there now, a win and some help from enemies turned friends to cross the finish line.