Blue Jays' September Slide Isn't the Only Reason They're Clinging to a Playoff Spot

Toronto can point to a number of things, like a lousy first month, for why it finds itself in the position its in today. With a little over a week left, every misstep is a step closer to quicksand.

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Sep 23 2016, 3:05pm

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the true believers among Blue Jays fans, there was a moment on Tuesday night in Seattle that conjured the magic of last September. In the midst of an eight-run inning, Devon Travis blooped a popup down the right-field line that landed fair among three befuddled defenders. Ezequiel Carrera raced all the way home from first base. Joyful howls, broad grins and frenzied high-fives greeted Carrera as he marched through the dugout receiving line.

The players' message, to each other and to their fans: We finally caught a break, we're hitting again and and we're still in this thing. We are back.

The next day, they were back to normal, scuffling for runs, which always magnifies bad breaks. This time, a sliding runner kicked a ball out of Josh Donaldson's glove to erase an out in the 12th inning and Seattle won 2-1.

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The Jays ended their 4-3 road trip in a silent dugout, with 83 wins and 10 games to go. Over the four years since the second wild-card berth was added, it has taken an average of 90 wins to make it to the sudden-death wild-card game.

They are still in this thing. But they will need to be good and they will need some luck. With a little over a week left, every misstep is a step closer to quicksand.

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For Blue Jays fans, the big tease came just before the all-star break. The Jays won 10 of 13 to pull within two games of first-place Baltimore. Hopes were high as players scattered for a four-day respite.

Before that hot stretch, which began June 28, the Jays were eminently mediocre. An improbably proficient starting rotation had pushed them a paltry four games over .500. The offence was shuffling along, producing 4.7 runs per game, roughly league-average.

Then came a spurt that summoned memories of the previous autumn. In the 13 games before the break, the Jays averaged 6.5 runs per game. They hit 18 homers. Their OPS for that stretch was .856. (They also averaged 10 strikeouts per game, but no one was complaining about that for a change.)

Injuries have a lot to do with it, but Jose Bautista hasn't been himself this season. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After the break, their pedestrian habits returned. But Baltimore was cooling off and the Red Sox were just warming up, combining to create a mirage that left the Jays in first place for 22 days, even though their record in that span was only 12-10.

If fans were disinclined to survey the full context, another division championship seemed within reach.

It was an illusion. Except for that hot spot before the break, the Jays were never championship-calibre. And barring another unlikely deviation, a terrible September has drowned their hopes of winning the division.

The Jays held a one-game lead over the Tigers for the first wild-card spot entering play Friday. And yes, of course anything can happen.

But if good things are to happen for the Jays, they will probably need to win at least six times and maybe more against the Yankees (four games), the Orioles (three) and the Red Sox (three).

The first seven of those games are at home. The final three are in Fenway Park, with Boston feting the retirement of David Ortiz all weekend and the Red Sox, in all likelihood, celebrating a division championship.

For the Blue Jays, that challenge puts the lie to the clichés we're been hearing.

"We control our own destiny," they say, but of course they don't. They will need help. They will need luck.

"We can only control what we do in our games," they say. But if that were true, they would not have averaged three runs per game and batted .207 with runners in scoring position on their West Coast trip.

If fact, control of one's own destiny is a virtual non-factor in baseball. The lack of control is what makes each game unique and each moment so unpredictable. It is what will make the rest of this season a nail-biter for fans of the Jays and Orioles, and maybe even the Red Sox.

Both the Blue Jays and Red Sox play all of their remaining games within the division. In a bizarre and absurd bit of scheduling, Baltimore has three home games against Arizona, one of the worst teams in the majors.

As hopeful underdogs are fond of saying, the beauty of baseball is that in a tight race, the last few games of the season can turn a trend on its head. But at the same time, it is hard to dismiss the trends.

Entering play Friday, the Blue Jays were 7-12 in September, Baltimore 10-10 and Boston 15-5. With a doubleheader win Thursday, the Tigers are 10-9 this month.

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After that 22-day visit to first place, the Blue Jays have sagged, but their late-season plunge is not the only reason they face a steep hill with 10 games to go.

They were bad in April: Their record was 11-14. They split their season-opening series with Tampa Bay and lost one to Boston in the first week, and then dropped three straight to the White Sox in the last week of the month. Those games count the same as the last 10 in September.

The Rays have their number: The Jays are 8-11 vs. Tampa Bay, the division's worst team. In May, the Rays outscored the Jays 31-7 in three straight wins. The Rays have beaten them four times in six September games.

Marco Estrada is coming off a gem, but has had a rough second half. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Their slump goes back to the all-star break: The Jays are 32-29 since the break. In that stretch, their team ERA has risen from 3.76 to 4.03. Their runs-per-game average has dropped from 4.9 to 4.5. Their OPS has fallen 40 points to .734.

Pitching dip: Toronto's rotation remains exemplary, but it has slipped since the all-star break: 3.64 ERA before, 4.05 after. With the offence scoring so few runs, the pitchers have a tiny margin for error.

The Bautista factor: For the previous six seasons, Jose Bautista has been the fulcrum of the Jays' lineup. This year, toe and knee injuries have forced him to miss 42 games, adding a measure of instability to the lineup. Even before he was hurt, his production was down, but it is evident that his injuries linger and continue to affect his timing. According to Fangraphs, Bautista's hard contact is up, but so is his soft contact. He is hitting more infield popups than ever.

September swoon: On average, the Jays are scoring 3.6 runs, allowing 4.8 and striking out nine times per game this month.

But with all of the foregoing, they're still in it—thanks mainly to one hot stretch just before the all-star break. They could use a little of that again.