With two weeks left in the regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays lead the American League wild-card standings and have a faint chance of catching the New York Yankees in the East Division race.
Wander Franco had three RBIs, Jonathan Aranda homered and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Jays 10-5 on Thursday night in the opener of a big four-game series between playoff contenders.
Randy Arozarena had three hits and drove in two runs for the Rays, who were coming off a three-game series in which they were swept by Houston and scored just twice.
Tampa Bay (83-67) pulled within one game of Toronto (84-66) for the top spot in the AL wild-card standings. Seattle (82-67) is in third, four games ahead of Baltimore.
Here’s a look at some of the numbers and storylines as the Blue Jays continue their road trip Thursday night with the opener of a big four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Blue Jays are a virtual lock to qualify for the playoffs thanks to a strong September that put some distance between them and the teams chasing for the three AL wild-card spots.
The Toronto-Tampa Bay series could have a big impact on the battle for the top wild-card position, which comes with home-field advantage in the best-of-three first round.
The top two division winners earn byes while the third-ranked division winner hosts the third wild-card team (No. 3 seed vs. No. 6 seed). The top wild-card team hosts the second wild-card entry (No. 4 vs. No. 5).
The West Division-leading Houston Astros were the only AL team that has clinched a playoff berth.
The East-leading Yankees were 6 1/2 games up on Toronto and the Central-leading Cleveland Guardians were six games up on the Chicago White Sox.
The Blue Jays had a 98.6-per cent chance of securing a wild-card spot and a 6.7-per cent chance of winning the World Series, per FanGraphs odds on Thursday afternoon.
Toronto’s chances of winning the East Division are listed at just 1.2 per cent on the website.
After the Blue Jays’ current road trip ends on Sunday, the team will return to Rogers Centre for a three-game series against the Yankees, followed by a three-game weekend set against the Boston Red Sox.
Toronto and Baltimore will close the campaign with a three-game set at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. That series will wrap on Oct. 5 with a late afternoon start.
A cabinet order enforcing mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirements at the border is expected to expire on Sept. 30, which could provide more options for opposing teams in potential playoff games in Toronto.
Border restrictions on travellers who aren’t vaccinated forced several clubs to add players to the restricted list for road games at Rogers Centre this season.
Tampa Bay’s Brooks Raley missed a five-game series at Toronto earlier this month. Fellow Rays reliever Ryan Thompson was also on the restricted list for the team’s trip north earlier in the season.
The Mariners put reliever Drew Steckenrider on the restricted list for their lone visit to Toronto this year. Starter Robbie Ray, who won the AL Cy Young Award last year with the Blue Jays, also did not make the trip.
Home-field advantage in a playoff series is normally a team’s preference but the Blue Jays should be a confident bunch if they open the post-season on the road.
Entering play Thursday, Toronto has won 15 of its last 19 road games and boasted a 41-33 record away from home. The Blue Jays’ .554 road winning percentage was second in the AL behind the Houston Astros.
Toronto’s offence has shone away from home. The Blue Jays lead the AL in road runs per game (5.15), road average (. 267), road on-base percentage (. 331), road slugging percentage (. 427) and road OPS (. 758).
Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette started the month of September on a tear and hasn’t let up with about a week to go.
He took a sparkling .424 batting average for the month into Thursday’s series opener against Tampa Bay.
Bichette has driven in 23 runs in September and has a monthly OPS of a whopping 1.267. He leads all big-league hitters this month in hits, extra-base hits, total bases and RBIs.