National Post (National Edition)

From Blue to red hot: Underdog Jays rocked



When the Blue Jays checked in to TD Ballpark 10 months ago to prepare for the 2020 season, there were exterior signs that a fresh start was ready to accelerate.

The renovation­s to the team's Dunedin stadium were impressive, a long overdue rebuild to one of the most inferior spring-training homes in all of Major League Baseball.

What happened on the field in a truncated season loaded with challenges like no other was far more impactful than the ambitious overhaul of the Florida venue.

The more meaningful signs of renovation took place in a 60-game season in which the displaced team overcame logistical challenges owing to its Canadian address.

Not only did the Jays have the second-largest season-over-season improvemen­t in club history, the young team essentiall­y validated a rebuild toward contention.

In clearing the obstacles of the pandemic-stained season, many of them unique to Canada's only MLB team, the Jays were borderline overachiev­ers as they qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2016. There wasn't a profession­al sports team that didn't have its challenges in 2020 but unique among their peers, the Jays were at a competitiv­e disadvanta­ge from the outset.

And because of that improvemen­t, despite their circumstan­ces and the promise of more on the way, the Jays were selected Postmedia's team of the year for 2020.

“There were so many things that could have been built-in excuses for our players and they refused to make those excuses,” team president Mark Shapiro said following a season in which the young Jays core establishe­d itself while gaining invaluable competitiv­e experience. “They chose instead to focus on what they could control and, to me, those attributes and traits are markers of a championsh­ip makeup and personalit­y.”

The caveats to the forward leap are easily dismissed when stacked against the challenges the Jays had to surmount. Yes, it was just a 60-game season and yes the team took advantage of an expanded post-season format, an exploit that fizzled in an abbreviate­d twogame sweep at the hands of the eventual AL champion Tampa Bay Rays.

The list of accomplish­ments more than outweighs any perceived slight for a team that never saw Toronto after being refused an exemption by the Canadian government to play games at the Rogers Centre. Among them:

The Jays' win percentage of .533 was a drastic improvemen­t from the .414 mark for a 67-95 loss 2019 season, making it the most impressive turnaround for the team since 1982.

Manager Charlie Montoyo, so central to the Jays success, became the first manager in MLB history to lose more than 90 games in his first season as skipper then make the playoffs in his second.

❚ The Jays qualified for the post season without a single player on the roster who had been in the majors for 10 years or more, the first time that had happened in the majors for 105 years.

❚ Relegated to the temporary confines of Sahlen Field, the Jays made the best of their situation, compiling at 179 record at the downtown Buffalo stadium. That .654 win percentage tied for the second-highest in team history.

The results were one thing but the method they reached made them considerab­ly more impressive.

After a summer camp in Toronto in early July to prepare for the season, but being denied a travel exemption from the Canadian government to play regular-season games at the Rogers Centre, the Jays finally announced that Buffalo would be their home away from dome.

But before Sahlen Field could be renovated to accommodat­e big-league accoutreme­nts and pandemic protocols, the Jays would start their season with 13 consecutiv­e road games.

And predictabl­y, it did not go well. The Jays were just 5-8 over that stretch.

Things changed when they settled in to their western New York digs for their home opener on Aug. 11, beginning a stretch that would speak loudly about the resiliency of the group and the leadership of Montoyo.

With credit to the behind-the-scenes work to transform Sahlen Field into as comfortabl­e a venue as possible given the circumstan­ces. That the Jays were able to craft a tangible homefield advantage from a triple-A park required more than what it appeared on the surface. While not living in a true bubble, it may as well have been for players and Jays staff who shuffled between their hotel and Sahlen Field, a short walk away. There was no time to embrace the city or set down temporary roots — it was all baseball and staying safe and healthy.

If there was a stretch that defined the character of the young Jays it was one that began on Aug. 14 and included a numbing 28 games in 27 days. Almost remarkably, the Jays went 18-10 in that grind, battling through injuries, travel and hotel-room isolation.

That surge put the young Jays on a trajectory for a playoff berth and delivered the added benefit of the experience associated with dealing with the pressure and thrill of a playoff race.

“The recurrent theme for me was our players' belief in each other and in their talent,” Shapiro said. “And in a time frame that was probably faster than any of us thought was possible, seeing that belief transition into the reality of a successful season and taking the next step toward a championsh­ip in the future.”

 ?? GREGORY FISHER / USA TODAY SPORTS FILES ?? Toronto Blue Jays infielders Bo Bichette and Jonathan Villar, with outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, celebrate a victory
over the New York Yankees Sept. 24 at Buffalo's Sahlen Field — clinching the team's first playoff spot since 2016.
GREGORY FISHER / USA TODAY SPORTS FILES Toronto Blue Jays infielders Bo Bichette and Jonathan Villar, with outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, celebrate a victory over the New York Yankees Sept. 24 at Buffalo's Sahlen Field — clinching the team's first playoff spot since 2016.

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