Blue Jays veterans explain how to approach the pressure of MLB playoffs
The Oakland Athletics made the playoffs three times during Matt Chapman’s five-year tenure in the organization. The 29-year-old played in two of those series, both one-game wild-card matchups in 2018 and 2019. And it’s the physical sensations he remembers from those moments.
“Everything’s heightened,” said the Toronto Blue Jays third baseman, speaking from the tunnel inside Rogers Centre. “It's win or go home; one of these teams is going home. It’s so much fun. Your adrenaline is going crazy, and the stadium is rocking.”
In his first few playoff opportunities, Chapman said he felt "overhyped" and "tense," to the point that, in retrospect, he wished he had enjoyed those postseason opportunities more. Once the buzz of emotion subsided, though, his instincts kicked in and he picked up a hit towards the end of each game.
“It never works when I try really hard, like putting so much pressure on myself,” he said. “I do best when I kind of focus and I'm in the moment. I just let it come to me.”
Chapman will eventually share that philosophy inside the Blue Jays clubhouse, but only when the time is right. For now, he’ll keep grinding away as Toronto sits inches away from clinching a playoff berth.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Jays’ magic number sits at two games, meaning a win plus a Baltimore Orioles loss gets them in. After the club clinches and the Blue Jays celebrate their accomplishment, they’ll need to reset and re-focus on the winning qualities that have carried them all year.
“Have fun, enjoy, play hard, expect to win,” said George Springer, rattling off a few keys to postseason success. “I think as long as you have confidence in yourself as a team, you can achieve anything you want.”
Springer’s 63 career playoff games trump all active Blue Jays players by a mile. From his experience, hard-nosed baseball wins out in October. That bodes well for Toronto’s revamped steal-heavy, hit-and-run offence implemented by interim manager John Schneider.
“Our style of baseball, it’s fast, it's aggressive,” said Springer. “It's walks; steal a base; hit-and-run; stuff like that. It’s hard to defend aggression.”
The 2017 World Series MVP said there’s nothing fundamentally different about playing in the postseason, apart from the spotlight shining a little brighter since every game is played in prime time. By nature, there’s also more noise to block out.
Jackie Bradley Jr., a veteran of 22 career playoff games, agrees with Springer in that every postseason play — and misplay — will be dissected to the fullest degree. So, when his Blue Jays teammates ask for advice, he keeps it very simple.
“Just play your game,” Bradley said. “Don’t really get caught up in all the hoopla. Your game is good enough.”
This Jays team should be able to get to the wild-card round and beyond, theoretically. However, baseball has an unpredictability to it, especially in short series, which challenges teams to overcome adversity. Nothing can truly prepare a club for that part.
When things go sideways — think Russell Martin’s throwing error in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS versus the Texas Rangers — a ballclub’s true colours emerge. How much do they want it? Do they have each other’s backs? Can they pick each other up?
Again, consider the at-bats that led to José Bautista's game-winning three-run blast in the 2015 ALDS. Those momentous team efforts, where a team recovers from being a few runs down or takes advantage of timely mistakes from their opponent, come from the team as a whole, not from one or two standout performances.
“It can't just take a few guys. It's got to take the whole team,” said Bradley, who won the 2018 ALCS MVP. “And that's what allows teams to succeed in the postseason.”
Bradley’s been graced by the influence of several veterans over his 10-year career — David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Andrew Miller, and Shane Victorino, among others, have left their mark on the 32-year-old.
For Chapman, it was guys such as Marcus Semien and Jed Lowrie from Oakland. The combined experience between Chapman and Bradley has allowed the vets to zero in on some future leaders in the Blue Jays clubhouse. Bo Bichette seems like a budding leader already, though he’ll have plenty of veteran support for the next couple of years, at least.
Above all, that critical clubhouse cohesion is there in Toronto, Chapman said. Now the Blue Jays will get to put their team chemistry to the test on the biggest stage.
“It's gonna be a great opportunity for us to find out [what we have] these playoffs,” he said. “I think these are the moments that guys come together, and we can really come together as a team, and build a foundation for this postseason hopefully.”
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