PHILADELPHIA — As the total number of wins for the Toronto Blue Jays rises, the strategic questions confronting team decision-makers change, sometimes from day to day. But on the field, the challenge on the field remains the same: just win.
On that front, the Blue Jays did what they had to do on Tuesday, beating the Phillies in an 18-11 slugfest at Citizens Bank Park to improve to 84-64. Ross Stripling wasn’t at his best and Julian Merryweather made this one much closer than it needed to be, but Alejandro Kirk returned to the lineup with a walk and three singles from the DH spot on a night when Toronto’s attack created plenty of breathing room behind 21 hits.
It was ugly, but it counts.
While Stripling gave up five earned runs in more than four innings, Teoscar Hernandez had a four-hit game and catcher Danny Jansen added three of his own, while Matt Chapman dragged Kyle Gibson deep for his 27th homerun of the season.
All in all, a welcome lopsided win during a stressful season. At the same time, each individual game also fits into a larger puzzle. The results of the Rays and Mariners games determine how much breathing room the Blue Jays have on top of the AL wildcard stand. Perhaps more important are the results of the Yankees and Orioles games, as flip-flops with one of those teams would mean a real step change for the Blue Jays.
“It’s so jumbled up now,” interim manager John Schneider said Tuesday afternoon. “It changes all the time, so I know it sounds cliché, but we try to focus on the task ahead. You want to put yourself in a position to dictate your own script.”
First of all, the Blue Jays must reach the playoffs. But since FanGraphs estimated their chance of moving forward at 99.6 percent before beating the Phillies, let’s assume they’re playing over 162 this year.
Getting there is one thing. How they get there is also important. So, tactically, how are the Blue Jays approaching the final two weeks of the regular season?
“You make informed decisions based on where you are in the standings and where other teams are,” said Schneider.
If there is a chance to upset the Yankees, the Blue Jays must push, as a first-round bye eliminates the risk associated with a three-game wildcard series. The Yankees started the day with 5.5 games for the Blue Jays, but will play three games in Toronto next week, so there is a chance to gain ground straight away.
With that in mind, the Blue Jays can keep Alek Manoah on regular rest for Friday’s start against the Rays and host a potential Manoah appearance in Wednesday’s final against New York.
At some point in the upcoming Rays series, Mitch White will join the rotation, but the details there are yet to be determined. One scenario at play would be that White, who is on the taxi crew with the Blue Jays in Philadelphia, starts Saturday.
Confirmed rotation plans
Tuesday vs. Phillies – Stripling
Wednesday vs. Phillies – Kevin Gausman
Possible rotation plans
Thursday vs. Rays – Jose Berrios
Friday vs. Rays – Manoah
Saturday vs. Rays – White
Sunday vs. Rays – Stripling
Monday vs. Yankees – Gausman
Tuesday vs. Yankees – Berrios
Wednesday vs. Yankees – Manoah
The condition of the bullpen will influence the Blue Jays’ decisions, as will the results elsewhere in the AL playoff race. For example, if the Yankees are gaining ground over the Blue Jays, there’s reason to give Manoah extra rest. He’s already set his career high in innings with each successive start, and his major outings are yet to come.
“It’s liquid,” Schneider said. “Having options is good. A lot will be dictated in the next three days.”
The Blue Jays had to use their bullpen five innings after Stripling’s departure, with Merryweather conceding five earned runs and throwing 29 pitches for his worst performance of the year.
Ideally, they would line up Gausman and Manoah for the wild card round, but that duo may also be needed on the final weekend of the season. Either way, the Blue Jays, Mariners and Rays look like they’re headed for a particularly close finish. The top team of these three gets home field advantage, while the last finisher gets an easier path to the ALCS with the AL Central winner followed by the Yankees.
Under those circumstances, second place with a wildcard might be the worst place to be, which is a big incentive for the Blue Jays to keep winning. But right now it’s way too early to think about refining a finish. The more they win now, the more options they have later. In other words, keep the eruptions coming.
“You play to win every game,” said Schneider. “Anyway, you want to A) play well, B) come in and C) play well when we come in.”