ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Comforted by the cushion that there is an added wild card spot to water down qualifying standards for the post season, the magnitude of a four-game Blue Jays series here this weekend is diminished.
But that’s not to say the clash against a team the Jays could face in the playoffs is without significance.
The Jays are well aware of the benefits of securing the top wild card seed and an opening-round best-of-three played entirely at the Rogers Centre. And as we were reminded once again in a horrific 10-5 loss to the Rays, they certainly want nothing to do with a return visit to Tropicana Field.
But with losses in three of their previous four, a path to that top spot among non-division winners is not nearly as clear as it was, adding some bite to their remaining 12 games.
The concerns, while not epic because of the new playoff format, are piling up for a Jays team that has been plagued by inconsistencies through much of the 2022 season. With that in mind, Thursday’s loss was triggered by another disastrous outing from starter Jose Berrios, who is still seeking a hint of reliable form game over game.
In allowing at least five earned runs for the eighth time this season, Berrios lasted just two innings, allowing six earned runs on seven hits.
It wasn’t his worst start of the season, but it was up there.
And it was a poor start that to what in some ways is still a critical series for the Jays, who are still clinging to the top wild card seed they took into this series.
With their win, the Rays moved to within a game of their division rival in the wild card race, while the Seattle Mariners (possessors of an incredibly soft schedule the rest of the way, are 1.5 back of Toronto.)
Injecting added importance to the remaining three games of this series, the Rays have a 9-7 record against the Jays this season, giving them the edge in the first tie-breaking criteria.
The Jays arrived here looking to have an impact in the four-game set – – in the standings, in putting up a credible effort against a difficult opponent and to establish more reliable form.
“The goal of every series is to win it,” Jays manager John Schneider said. “It seems like everything is magnified with who we are playing and where we are in the standings.
“Hopefully we can put some separation there.”
That goal will be difficult without a sharper effort than what the team has delivered over its past two. While certainly weary from what was essentially an overnight flight from Philly, the Jays didn’t have much fight against the Rays after the second inning of a game played before a modest crowd of 8,799 at the Trop.
And Schneider wasn’t gratuitous in his assertion prior to the game that with the AL East title all but out of reach, securing the top WC slot is prime motivation for the remaining 13 games.
“Home field would be great,” Schneider said. “There would be nothing better than to play in front of our fans in the post season after the last couple of years, whether we haven’t been there or what the world and country has been through.”
Though the pressure of securing a spot is minimal, there is still plenty to play for, then.
The Jays certainly want to be playing more consistently.
Besides playing in front of a home crowd, there is added appeal in terms of a looming rigorous itinerary. If the Jays finish in second, they’d finish the regular season with three games in Baltimore and then head to Seattle or Tampa (the two most likely destinations.) Should they win the best-of-three, it would be off to Houston for the divisional round.
It was a struggle from the outset for Berrios, who only has two more guaranteed starts to shape up to post-season form. He needed 31 pitches to get through the first and added 43 in the second … In fact, Berrios, Trevor Richards and Zach Pop combined to hurl 120 pitches through the first four … The Jays were actually tied at 3-3 heading to the bottom half of the second, helped by second-inning solo homers from Teoscar Hernandez and Whit Merrifield, who added a two-run shot in the ninth. It was Merrifield’s third career multi-home run game and first since 2019 … The Jays have surrendered 10 or more runs in three of their past seven games.