MINNEAPOLIS — Could it have ended any other way?
The Blue Jays’ underwhelming, frustrating, confounding 2023 season came to its disappointing end with a 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series on Wednesday in a game that was underwhelming, frustrating, and, yes, confounding.
The Blue Jays lost this series because the offence scored one run across 18 innings, but the Game 2 loss will be defined by a controversial decision to pull starter José Berríos, who was dealing after three scoreless innings, to bring in left-hander starter Yusei Kikuchi, who went on to allow the only two runs the Twins would need to win.
Twins sweep Blue Jays in Wild Card Series, will face Astros in ALDS
Berríos had been sharp against his former team, striking out five while allowing just three hits to the first 11 batters he faced. However, after Berríos walked Twins designated hitter Royce Lewis to lead off the fourth, manager John Schneider pulled the right-hander and brought in Kikuchi, who’d been warming up since the second inning. The southpaw was summoned with two left-handed Twins batters coming up, instigating the cat-and-mouse game between managers.
Right fielder Max Kepler hit a ground ball to the right side, but Cavan Biggio bobbled it, allowing him to reach base. The Twins then pinch-hit for Alex Kirilloff, bringing in Donovan Solano, who walked. That loaded the bases for Carlos Correa, who singled up the middle to drive in the Twins’ first run. Pinch-hitter Willi Castro hit into a double play, but a run scored to make it 2-0 Twins.
The decision to pull Berríos for Kikuchi felt too cute even before it backfired and looks like an over-reliance on numbers and data rather than trusting what your eyes are seeing on the field. It also felt unfair to Berrios, who maybe had his best stuff of the year, and Kikuchi, whose relief pitching experience is minimal. Knowing the Blue Jays’ collaborative philosophy, this wasn’t a decision made by Schneider alone and in the moment, but a plan that had been hashed out and discussed at length beforehand. Schneider, however, acknowledged that Berríos had electric stuff and that it was tough to take him out.
“You can sit here and second-guess me, second-guess the organization, second-guess anybody. I get that,” he said. “And it’s tough. And it didn’t work out for us today or yesterday. But that’s baseball sometimes. There are 29 teams that are going to say the same thing when the season’s over. But yes, tough way to end the year.”
Asked if the way that Berríos was pitching could have prompted him to deviate from the plan, Schneider said, “It’s tough.”
“When you’re so diligent with your work and you trust the people that you’re working with and the people that you’re kind of going to battle with, both on the field and off, you just try to make the best decision that you can for the guys that are on the field to win,” the Blue Jays manager said. “And José understands that. He is about as good of a competitor as you can get. You look at our entire starting staff. You can say the same about all of them. Wanted nothing more than for Chris Bassitt to be on the mound tomorrow. But as it unfolds, it’s a fine balance of being consistent and convicted with what you think is right and what’s going on in real-time.”
After the game, an emotional Berríos said he knew the elimination game would mean a short runway, but he also expressed frustration about the loss and the circumstances around it.
“We had to give all we got in this game,” said Berríos, who appeared near tears. “That’s what I did. I was trying my hardest, pitch by pitch. In that fourth inning, I started the inning walking the guy, we don’t have (much) room to give (the Twins) a chance, so, I understand the move, so I have to deal with that.”
Asked if he understood the reasoning behind it, Berríos said, “Honestly, I don’t know. But other than that, I can’t control that. So like I say, I did my best, first 12 batters. So that’s what it is.”
The advantage the Blue Jays had this postseason was their rotation, which was the American League’s best in the regular season and perhaps the deepest of any of the remaining clubs this postseason. But in Game 1, Kevin Gausman faltered early and pitched an uncharacteristically short four innings. And in Game 2, it seemed as though the Blue Jays got in their own way. While the Blue Jays organization deserves to be scrutinized for the decision to pull Berríos when he looked close to his near-best, this wasn’t the only reason the Blue Jays lost this game — and series.
Much like the regular season, the lineup didn’t capitalize on scoring opportunities for two straight games. In the series, Toronto went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position, left 18 on base and while they out-hit the Twins 15-12, only one of their hits was for extra bases. Scoring one run across 18 innings isn’t going to get it done and the Blue Jays acknowledged as much.
“We didn’t score runs, can’t win without scoring runs,” Bo Bichette said, before adding that he didn’t think it was due to a lack of preparation. “I didn’t think it was poor execution or game plan on our part. I think obviously you can always be better, but they have great pitching over there and they were just better than us.”
The Blue Jays had chances early against Twins starter Sonny Gray, putting two men on in both the first and second innings but couldn’t drive them in.
In the fifth, George Springer singled before Vladimir Guerrero Jr. walked. They both advanced on a wild pitch to put men on second and third with Bichette at the plate. He worked a 3-2 count, but Guerrero got caught straying too far from the bag and was picked off at second base when Gray threw to Correa.
“You don’t want that to happen, but they made a good play on me,” Guerrero said after the game.
Sonny Gray picks off Guerrero Jr to end the inning. 😲
Catch all of the action on Sportsnet and Sportsnet+! pic.twitter.com/Wvftp1l4Z4
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 4, 2023
It was an egregious base-running blunder considering Guerrero was the tying run, he wasn’t going anywhere with Springer standing on third, there were two outs and the team’s best hitter was at the plate. It’s also the type of error that’s seemingly become a far too common occurrence this season, especially in light of the fact that the Blue Jays vowed back in spring training to be a team that did the little things right.
“We’ve talked about it since Feb. 14,” Schneider said. “I think that we can all look at each other in the face and say collectively we fell short of executing what we wanted to do. It’s not for a lack of information or prep. In that moment, that can’t happen.”
The Blue Jays had the bases loaded in the sixth with one out and Matt Chapman at the plate. The third baseman laced what could’ve been a game-tying double down the third-base line, but it landed less than a foot foul and on the next pitch Chapman grounded into an inning-ending double play. The at-bat feels like an apt metaphor for Chapman’s season — during which he’s made a lot of solid contact, but hasn’t gotten a lot of results since May 1.
Matt Chapman was inches from giving the Jays the lead then he grounded into a rally-killing double play pic.twitter.com/RVCj86RBNg
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 4, 2023
With the loss, the Blue Jays will have a winter to reflect on what went wrong this season, which began with a goal to win the American League East division and ended with the Blue Jays scraping by to get into the postseason, only to get bounced in two games for the second straight season. The Guerrero-Bichette-led core, with their competitive window wide open, now have an 0-6 record in the postseason dating to 2020, and it will be a long winter of trying to figure out why this club hasn’t been able to win in October when it really matters.
“We got beat up two years in a row in the playoffs,” Bichette said. “There’s a lot of reflection needed from players, but from the organization, from top to down, everybody needs to reflect and see what we can do better, so I think that’s the next step.”
Last offseason, the Blue Jays made a calculated play to invest in pitching and defence and while that led to improvements in both those areas — their defence ranked first in the majors, while their pitching staff was third — the offence underperformed this season, with many players hitting under their career norms. The Blue Jays will need to figure out why that is and fix it, while also further supplementing the offence with bats that can hit in the middle of the order.
The makeup of the roster will inevitably be changing, too, with a number of players headed for free agency, including Chapman, Kevin Kiermaier, Hyun Jin Ryu, Jordan Hicks, and likely Whit Merrifield, assuming his mutual option is declined. Brandon Belt is a free agent, as well, but the 35-year-old suggested he’ll take some time after the season to determine whether he’ll play next year. Whether more changes are coming — either on the roster or within the organization at large — remains to be seen, but Springer said that he liked the players they had this year, even if the desired results didn’t come.
“The guys in this locker room are plenty good and we did a lot of good things this year. Don’t care what anybody says, this team battled, this team did a lot of really, really good things offensively, defensively, on the mound,” Springer said. “For us, whoever’s in this locker room, I know that the expectation will be to build off this year, understand who we are and on to the next.”
The season ending so suddenly is like a Band-Aid getting ripped off, Schneider said after the game. It’s painful and the end of this Blue Jays season felt especially so.
(Photo of Kikuchi: Kyodo via Associated Press)