In the competitive American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays held their share of the top spot in the division for just over a month of the 2016 schedule. While that run ended on September 6, it did not prevent the team from gaining entrance to the postseason fun as they defeated the Boston Red Sox twice to close out the season to earn a Wild Card entry to the playoffs.
They used an eleventh inning three-run walk-off home run from Edwin Encarnacion against the Baltimore Orioles to earn a 5-2 victory, securing Toronto the right to head to Texas to face the American League’s top club, the Texas Rangers, in the American League Division Series.
The Blue Jays blew by the Rangers in three straight, stealing two victories on the road before winning the clinching game at home in Toronto on Sunday with a 7-6 walk-off in ten innings. Toronto has now won six straight games as the American League Championship Series gets set to start on Friday night.
Toronto played well throughout the heart of the season’s schedule, but struggled out of the gates just like their ALCS counterpart in the Cleveland Indians. They were 11-14 in April, outscored 102-100, digging a four-game hole in the division while sitting in the fourth spot in the aggressive East.
The offense picked up a little bit in May. They dealt with a tough interleague matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, going 3-3 against the future NL playoff contenders. They headed into the final week of the month with just an 11-10 record before facing off against their AL East rivals, New York and Boston, dealing the two clubs six losses in eight games to close the month with a 17-12 mark.
The bats stepped up big for Toronto in June as the team opted to bludgeon the opposition. The pitching staff allowed a season-high 131 runs in the 27 games (4.85 runs per game), but the offense supplied 158 runs of support, good for a season-high 5.85 runs as the team went 15-12. They closed out the month with a 4-1 loss to the Indians, sitting in third place in the AL East with a 43-38 record.
July was a jumping off point for the Jays as they used a seven-game winning streak at the beginning of the month to climb right back into an East race that they had been just hanging out in for much of the first half of the year. The offense remained potent, putting up 5.6 runs a night, but the pitching staff locked in, allowing just 3.7 runs per game. By the end of the month, the Blue Jays had even gotten their first taste of first place since the third game of the year.
They eventually took over the top spot in the AL East and remained either in control of the position or within one game of it until the first week of September, when the club dropped six of seven and seven of nine against Tampa, New York, and Boston. The skid may have factored largely in the club falling short of the division crown, especially with three games early in the month against Boston and three more with the Red Sox to wrap up the season. They finished September and October with a 13-16 record, outscored 119-106 as their offense was silenced to just 3.66 runs per game, despite the staff allowing just 4.1 per game.
The rough final month or so of the regular season put the team’s ability to secure a playoff berth down to the final days of the season, clinching at least a tiebreaker game with their win on Saturday, October 1, before punching their ticket with their victory on October 2, giving them the role of hosts to the Baltimore Orioles in the one-game play-in game.
How did the Jays make their run? It started with the big boppers in the lineup.
Encarnacion stepped up big to contribute to the Jays order in what could be his final season with the club. He appeared in all but two games during the season, putting together a .263/.357/.529 slash line with 34 doubles while leading the team in homers with 42 and RBI with 127. He was one of six players on the roster to exceed 20 homers on the season.
Reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson led qualified hitters on the club with a .284 average, .404 OBP, and .549 slugging, ranking near the top of the AL in all three categories. He added 37 homers, 32 doubles, and 99 RBI while walking 109 times, giving him a balanced contribution to the club. For those that love WAR, he was number five overall in all of baseball (7.4) and third in offensive WAR (7.2). He missed just seven games in the regular season.
Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista missed time with injuries, but still put up numbers for the Jays. Tulowitzki had 21 doubles, 24 homers, and 79 RBI in 131 games, hitting .254. Bautista hit just .234, but had a .366 OBP with his 87 walks in 116 games. He added 24 doubles, a triple, 22 homers, and 69 runs driven in.
Even the likes of Michael Saunders, Russell Martin, and Kevin Pillar added big numbers to the lineup. Saunders hit .253 with 32 doubles, 24 homers, and 57 RBI. Martin hit .231, but drove in 74 runs as the sixth Blue Jay to hit at least 20 homers for the season. Pillar led the team in doubles with 35 and stolen bases with 14.
Toronto used just seven different starters in their rotation this season. J.A. Happ put up a career year in his first year back in Toronto, going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 32 starts. He struck out 163 in 195 innings. Aaron Sanchez was taken out of the rotation for a period of time to keep his innings down, but he still went 15-2 in 30 starts with a 3.00 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, and struck out 161 in 192 innings. Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37) made 32 starts and led the staff in innings (204) and strikeouts (166). Back injuries limited Marco Estrada, their ALCS Game 1 starter, to 29 starts over the course of the season. He went 9-9 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with 165 strikeouts in 176 innings. R.A. Dickey (10-15, 4.46 ERA, 1.37 WHIP in 29 starts) and Francisco Liriano (2-2, 2.92 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in eight starts after coming over from Pittsburgh) also did some heavy lifting in the rotation.
The bullpen is anchored by 21-year-old closer Roberto Osuna, who saved 36 games in 42 opportunities. He posted a 2.68 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP with 82 strikeouts in 74 innings (team-high 72 games) in just his second Major League season. Rookie Joe Biagini was second on the staff with 60 games pitched, earning nine holds. Early season acquisition Jason Grilli slotted in as a setup man after coming over from Atlanta, earning 21 holds and a pair of saves while going 6-4 with a 3.64 ERA in 46 games. The club did take a hit, however, when it lost veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a torn left calf muscle while trying to support his team during a brawl. He had gone 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA in 25 appearances for the Jays with one save and ten holds.
Toronto is a sound club defensively, finishing with just one fewer error than the Indians while posting a .986 fielding percentage. Where they suffered the most was behind the plate, where Martin, Dioner Navarro, and Josh Thole combined to throw out just 20 of 104 base stealers, a rate of 19.2%. Martin was the worst of their three backstops this season, throwing out just 15.3%, something that may factor in as the Indians look to manufacture runs. The Jays also allowed 29 passed balls, but 17 were charged to the knuckleballer Dickey’s personal catcher, Thole.
The Blue Jays allowed the fewest runs per game this season in the AL with 4.11, slightly better than the Indians, who were second at 4.20. They were also tops in the league in defensive efficiency and had one of the top defensive runs saved above average guys in their outfield in Pillar.
The healthy Toronto team may be favored by some against an Indians club down several starting pitchers, but the two teams stack up nicely against one another in what should be a fun and lengthy ALCS matchup.
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