Why the Blue Jays are about to be a big deal again
Canada's only MLB team is headed for a surprise playoff spot
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The Blue Jays are about to be Canada's team again
The Raptors are out of the playoffs, all the Canadian-based NHL teams are gone, and it's looking like two Sun Belt franchises will be playing for the Stanley Cup. So what's a sports fan up here to do? Well, thanks to some surprisingly strong play and a favourable series of events, the Toronto Blue Jays are in position to lock up an unlikely post-season spot over the next couple of weeks.
As Canada's only Major League Baseball franchise (RIP, Expos), the Blue Jays are more than just a Toronto team. They have a strong national following, and whenever they make the post-season the bandwagon fills up with fans from coast to coast.
You might want to beat the crowd, though, because the Jays are almost certainly going to the playoffs. With a 26-20 record and less than two weeks left in the shortened regular season, they currently have a 98 per cent chance of qualifying for this year's expanded (and quirky) post-season, according to both ESPN's and Fangraphs' projection systems. Another reason to hop on right now: Toronto opens a big three-game series tonight against the New York Yankees, who they're battling for one of the playoff spots in the AL East.
In case you're just coming around to the Jays, here's a look at how and why they're poised for their first playoff berth in four years and what might be next:
What's gone right
There's nothing "right" about a once-in-a-century global pandemic, but it has given Toronto a much better opportunity to make the playoffs. Back in the before times of early March, the Jays looked like a team with a promising young core that was headed in the right direction but would probably struggle to hang with the heavyweights over a 162-game season.
Then the pandemic hit, and the regular season was shortened to 60 games. An extra shot of randomness like that tends to benefit lesser teams. So does this: right before the season started, baseball decided to expand the playoff field from five teams in each league to eight, which is more than half the clubs. So instead of just the three division winners and two wild cards getting in, it's the top two in each division and two wild cards.
The Jays head into their series vs. the Yankees with a half-game lead over New York for second place in the AL East. But even if the Yanks overtake them by season's end, Toronto is all but ensured of a wild card. The closest team that could bump them out of the playoff picture right now is Seattle, which trails Toronto by five games with only 12 to play. That's why the playoff-odds models give the Jays a better chance of catching Tampa Bay (30-17) for first place in the AL East than of missing the playoffs.
Of course, even under this generous format, you still have to play well enough to get into the post-season. So give the Jays credit for that. Their starting rotation isn't the greatest, but free-agent pickup Hyun-Jin Ryu is pitching like the ace Toronto paid him to be, going 4-1 and striking out 10 batters per nine innings. The Jays' relievers have the third-best collective ERA in the American League, which is a pleasant surprise.
At the plate, Teoscar Hernandez is having a career year at age 27. He's up near the top of the leaderboard with 14 home runs while batting .308. Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are building on their strong rookie seasons and look like they could be stars for years to come.
What's gone wrong
The Jays have had some obstacles to overcome. The Canadian government wouldn't allow them to play out of the Rogers Centre, so they had to hold some early-season "home" games on the road before setting up shop at Buffalo's minor-league stadium, which is pretty spartan by MLB standards.
Injuries to key players have bitten the Jays too. Bichette and closer Ken Giles just returned from long absences, and Hernandez is now on the injured list after hurting an oblique two weekends ago.
Then there's Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has shown a troubling lack of power in his second big-league season. He seemed to be turning a corner in August, but his numbers have lagged again in September. Guerrero has only one homer this month and only two hits in his last five games. On the bright side, his off-the-charts talent gives the Jays a possible x-factor for the playoffs.
So how far can they take this?
Baseball was a pretty random sport to begin with, and it's leaning into that even more this year, so who knows?
In the first round of the revamped playoffs, the No. 1 seed in each league plays the No. 8 team, No. 2 faces No. 7, etc. The wild cards get the bottom two seeds. So if the Jays end up in one of those positions, they'll face a strong division winner: likely Tampa Bay or Oakland or the surprising Chicago White Sox, who currently have the second-best record in baseball. But the first round is best of three, which is ripe for upsets. And if the playoffs started today, Toronto would be the No. 5 seed and face the No. 4 Minnesota Twins in the first round.
After that, it's the usual best-of-five Division Series and best-of-seven League Championship Series and World Series. There's a new twist, though: under a deal reached today between MLB and the players' union, those three rounds will be played in bubbles. The ALDS will take place in San Diego and Dodger Stadium in L.A., the ALCS in San Diego and the World Series in Arlington, Tex.
So the road ahead is still long, and no one's expecting the Jays to win their first championship since 1993. But they're playing with house money now. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it's to be prepared for the unexpected. Read more about the Jays' surprising season and their outlook heading into the Yankees series here.
The Dallas Stars (surprise!) made the Stanley Cup final
Not the craziest thing to ever happen, but pretty much no one called this. Dallas had the 10th-best winning percentage in the regular season. As the No. 4 team in the Western Conference, they got to skip the qualifying round. They then took out a so-so Calgary team in six games before upsetting Colorado with an overtime goal in Game 7. The Stars were outshot and outplayed for much of the Western Conference final vs. Vegas, but they completed another upset in five games last night when Denis Gurianov scored in OT.
Dallas caught a big break when Vegas' Zach Whitecloud accidentally slapped the puck over the glass while battling for it with a Stars player, putting Dallas on the power play for the winning goal. That's the rule, but what awful luck for Vegas. And while we're here, wouldn't it be nice if NHL referees enforced stuff like holding, hooking and interference as vigorously as they do that over-the-glass rule?
Tonight, Tampa Bay can earn a date with the Stars in the Cup final by finishing off the Islanders in Game 5. The big question mark is the status of playoff scoring co-leader Brayden Point, who left Game 4 with an injury after missing the previous game altogether. Get caught up on all the interesting things happening in the NHL playoffs by watching Rob Pizzo's latest two-minute recap video.
Nick Nurse is sticking around. The NBA coach of the year had one season left on his contract before the Raptors gave him a multi-year extension today. This was a no-brainer after Nurse did an excellent job (along with his players) of maintaining a championship-calibre team after losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency. The Raptors went 53-19 in the regular season and had the league's second-best record for the second year in a row under Nurse before losing to a very good Boston team in a seven-game second-round playoff series. Read more about Nurse's contract extension here.
There are two big NBA playoff games tonight. Canadian Jamal Murray can reach the conference finals for the first time as his Denver Nuggets play Game 7 of their series against Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers at 9 p.m. ET. Murray scored 26 and 21 points in the last two games to help Denver avoid elimination. The winner of tonight's game faces the Lakers in the Western final. The East final tips off at 6:30 p.m. ET tonight with Boston facing Miami. The Celtics ended Toronto's title reign on Friday, and the Heat are the hottest team in the NBA after sweeping Indiana and then destroying top-seeded Milwaukee in five games.
The WNBA playoffs tip off tonight. It's an eight-team tournament, and the first two rounds are single-elimination games. So it's win or leave the bubble tonight as No. 6 seed Chicago faces No. 7 Connecticut and No. 5 Phoenix meets No. 8 Washington, which is the defending champion. The winners advance to face No. 3 Los Angeles and No. 4 Minnesota, who have first-round byes. Waiting in the semifinals are No. 1 Las Vegas and No. 2 Seattle, who get to skip the first two rounds. The semis and the Finals are both best-of-five series. Only two Canadian players are involved in the playoffs: Minnesota's Bridget Carleton (6.6 points per game this season) and Kayla Alexander (2.3). Get caught up on everything you should know for the WNBA playoffs in this piece by CBC Sports' Myles Dichter.
There's an all-Canadian grouping for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open. Canada's three highest-ranked male golfers — Adam Hadwin, Corey Conners and Mackenzie Hughes — tee off together Thursday at 8:49 a.m. ET at Winged Foot just outside New York City. Hughes is 56th in the world rankings, Hadwin 64th and Conners 69th. The only other Canadian in the field, 157th-ranked Taylor Pendrith, starts at 12:10 p.m. ET. He qualified by being ranked in the top five on the Korn Ferry Tour, which is a cut below the PGA Tour. All four guys will be trying to become the first Canadian to win a golf major since Brooke Henderson took the Women's PGA Championship in 2016, and the first Canadian man to do it since Mike Weir's Masters victory in 2003. Read more about the Canadian group here.
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