There’s an iconic scene in the movie Hoosiers where the Hickory High School basketball team arrives at the state championship game’s location, marveling at the massive arena they would be playing in; the gym is filled with seats and has glass backboards with padding, luxuries that the small-town heroes from Hickory are not used to whatsoever as they arrive at a basketball palace away from their homes.
That is the opposite of what opponents feel when they travel to play games against the Blue Jays, and they’re loving every moment of it.
With COVID restrictions still preventing the Jays from playing across the border in Toronto, they played the entirety of the last season at a minor league park in Buffalo, the dinky Class AAA yard where you can see a freeway over in left field. This year, they’ve played all of their games in Dunedin, Florida, their Low A team’s site, and will eventually move back to Buffalo starting in June. There’s no telling when the club will return to play in Toronto.
Initially, this was seen as something that could potentially be a detriment to the team; they wouldn’t have the luxuries of a major league clubhouse, the finest facilities, and amenities offered in their megadome known as the Rogers Centre, and there could be a lack of familiarity and comfortability.
The young squad continued to play well in 2020 despite the circumstances, and it became a sort of rallying cry as a “minor league underdog story” as they made the postseason for the first time since the Jose Bautista era in 2016. We wondered if that lightning in a bottle would wear off in a 162-game season this year, but they’ve shown no sign of slowing down and have only seemed to have gotten better. They’re right in the thick of it with the contending teams in their division.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., son of yes, THAT Vladimir Guerrero, is built like an absolute moose that hits home runs that deflected off the moon. He put on a show his rookie year in the 2019 Home Run Derby, and due to his build, he came into the year primarily just being known for his slugging. However, this offseason picture came out of the new Vladdy, having lost 42 pounds, and the transformation has shown in his game and made him a better all-around player. He’s come out hot with a .330 batting average, .465 on-base, 1.057 OPS, and is 4th in the majors in walks. He’s been an early MVP candidate in just his third year in the league.
They’re a team with far more batting than just Vladdy, though- Bo Bichette is the studly shortstop who can do it all, stealing bases, hitting for power, getting on base with a .318 OBP, and making highlight defensive plays at a premiere position. Marcus Semien was their infield free agency pickup this year from the A’s, a former MVP finalist, and he’s been a solid leadoff hitter. Randal Grichuk also just came out of nowhere (???), hitting .306 to start the year after being relatively average in St. Louis and Toronto to start his career. And, of course, their trophy of the offseason, George Springer, the 2017 World Series MVP with the Astros, is just getting started, finally appearing in some games after starting the year on the IL. If he gets going and is the Springer we’ve always known, they’re going to be an on-base hitting FACTORY.
The Jays have a deep, youthful lineup from top to bottom, so the primary concern had more to do with their pitching- Hyun-jin Ryu is an ace, but the rest of their rotation and bullpen was full of unproven question marks that hadn’t had much consistency. Thus far, they haven’t missed a beat! They’re in the top 10 in ERA allowed and top 5 in fewest walks allowed, and while the rest of the pitching numbers have been middle-of-the-pack, it hasn’t been the weakness that we initially came into the year believing that it could be; they trade for a starter or reliever away from having postseason-level depth.
Sure, the AL East looks like a blood bath this year; the Red Sox got off to the start they did, the World Series-favorite Yankees are finally starting to hit their stride, and the Rays are continuing to win in the most “Rays” way possible after their World Series loss last year, but the Blue Jays and their rebuild feel closer to contention than ever before.
They may not be doing it in the same way that the 2016 team did, with Bautista, Encarnacion, and Donaldson hitting mammoth homers to carry the team. Still, their patience with young talent after their tear down has come around and put them in a position to be competitive for a long time.
Whether they’re in Florida, Buffalo, or eventually Toronto, the migratory birds have soared.
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