4 heartbreaking losses that could have changed Blue Jays' playoff fate

A loss to the Red Sox on July 26 was one of the games that could have swung the Blue Jays' season. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

When the first pitch of the American League Wild Card Game is thrown by Nathan Eovaldi on Tuesday night, it will reinforce the heartbreak Toronto Blue Jays fans endured on Sunday.

The feeling that the Blue Jays could’ve been there, and based on their run differential and strong finish perhaps even deserved to be there, is going to be unavoidable. The Blue Jays were one Washington Nationals blown four-run lead or one Tampa Bay Rays run away from having a chance to play deep into October — and with Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien hitting free agency, an opportunity like 2021 presented won’t be easy to find again.

With Toronto missing out on a Game 163 by a single game, the possibilities for second-guessing are virtually endless, and the image of Marcus Semien and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. failing to record an out on a routine game-ender against the Detroit Tigers will be burned into the brains of countless Jays fans:

However, that win against the Tigers would’ve secured a Game 163, which could’ve gone either way for Toronto. To lock in a playoff berth, the Blue Jays would’ve needed to win one more against the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. So, if you want to engage in the masochistic exercise of figuring out exactly where the 2021 Blue Jays went wrong, losses against those two teams are where you need to look.

The Blue Jays went 20-18 against the two clubs, which gives us 18 candidates for “the one that got away” status. Here are the four best in chronological order:

May 20: Red Sox 8, Blue Jays 7

Win Expectancy chart:

What happened: After Steven Matz got pummelled to the tune of five runs in the second inning, he settled in and allowed the Blue Jays to claw their way back in the middle innings. Tyler Chatwood — who was still functional at that point — gave the Blue Jays a dominant seventh, and they held a 7-5 lead heading into the eighth inning.

Then Charlie Montoyo was presented with a choice. He had the option of going to his setup man Rafael Dolis in the eighth with the 5-6-7 hitters in the Red Sox order coming up, or giving the ball to his closer in hopes of shutting down a dangerous part of the lineup — and leaving lesser hitters to a lesser pitcher in the ninth. He chose the latter. Jordan Romano shut down Boston in the eighth, and Dolis got hammered in the ninth.

Was there any way to prevent it?: It’s hard to say whether reversing the order of the pitchers would’ve led to a different outcome. Montoyo’s logic was sound, and giving Dolis — who was still relatively fresh off an outstanding 2020 — the Red Sox’ 8-9-1 didn’t seem too dangerous. The second-guessing with this one is whether the manager should’ve brought in Travis Bergen (who had a 0.00 ERA in 9.1 innings at the time) to face the lefty Alex Verdugo after Dolis had allowed two of his first three hitters to reach base.

Considering Verdugo’s career splits (80 wRC+ vs. LHP and 125 vs. RHP) there might’ve been an argument for it, but Bergen was still unproven and hadn’t pitched as well as his ERA indicated — plus Dolis had done well in 2020 against lefties thanks to his nasty splitter, and actually had reverse splits in 2020.

Moving to Bergen also would’ve opened the southpaw up to a duel with J.D. Martinez, or an intentional walk that led to a battle with Xander Bogaerts. The three-batter rule made the situation tough to navigate.

June 15: Yankees 6, Blue Jays 5

Win Expectancy chart:

What happened: After Hyun-Jin Ryu gave the Blue Jays six innings of three-run ball, the team had a 5-3 lead. That advantage evaporated in the seventh inning as Anthony Castro gave up two runs, and a Tim Mayza inherited runner scored in the eighth to give the Yankees the advantage.

The offence also played a role, drying up after the fifth and going 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position from that point on.

Was there any way to prevent it?: Going to Castro in a relatively high-leverage spot may sound questionable now, but at the time he was one of the few relievers giving the Blue Jays good innings. Prior to this contest he’d produced 15 frames of 1.80 ERA ball, with 19 strikeouts against five walks and just one home run against.

The more dubious move that day was starting Riley Adams at catcher. Adams wasn’t contributing offensively and he’d started two games before, meaning Reese McGuire wasn’t in desperate need of a rest. A wild pitch he allowed to get past him scored the second run against Castro (one of three wild pitches on the day), and a stolen base was crucial to the Yankees’ go-ahead run (Adams was 0-for-8 catching base runners for the Blue Jays and 3-for-27 on the season).

June 16: Yankees 3, Blue Jays 2

Win Expectancy chart:

What happened: An error by Joe Panik on the first play of the game resulted in a costly run early, but the Blue Jays battled back to 2-1, only to fall 3-2 due to a Gary Sanchez homer off Ross Stripling in the seventh.

The blue Jays didn’t produce a hit with runners in scoring position all day.

Was there any way to prevent it?: The assumption that Panik was capable of playing third base was a faulty one, so that’s a decent starting point. Even when the team was struggling at the hot corner, the veteran — who lacks a strong arm and had no MLB experience at the position prior to 2020 — should never have been considered an answer. The defensive metric DRS estimates he cost the Blue Jays 12 runs in less than 300 innings there between 2020 and 2021. Santiago Espinal only appeared in this game as a pinch-hitter.

Leaving Stripling in for the seventh inning was also puzzling. Although he had been improving since a mechanical adjustment in late May, the bullpen was relatively fresh and he brought a 4.91 ERA into this game. Having him face the top of the Yankees order for the third time in the sixth was pushing it; keeping that party rolling was a step too far.

All of that said, against the Yankees you’re going to want to score more than two runs, so while the nitpicks are valid, the offence was the unit most responsible for the loss.

July 26: Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 4

Win Expectancy chart:

What happened: After a monster home run by Bo Bichette gave the Blue Jays a 4-3 lead heading into the eighth, Trevor Richards allowed a two-run shot to Alex Verdugo to return the lead to the Red Sox and put them on track for a win.

Was there any way to prevent it?: Not really.

The idea of pushing Richards into a second inning of work in a one-run game against the meat of Boston’s order might not seem ideal — and it isn’t — but the Blue Jays were hurting for bullpen length. Thomas Hatch lasted just 3.2 frames in the game, and the starters had only given the team 9.1 innings in the previous two games. Montoyo already pushed Adam Cimber to five outs, and if he lifted Richards to offer Romano the eighth, he would’ve been in a really tough spot for the ninth.

Richards got more than three outs 17 times in 2021, and was largely reliable, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to assume he had another scoreless frame in him. He did not.

Of course, the disclaimer with this whole exercise is that while teams can fritter away probable wins, they’re also capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The Blue Jays did both in 2021, even if it feels like the ledger tilted toward heartbreak. In a universe where Toronto secured one of these wins there’s no guarantee the butterfly effect wouldn’t have doomed them to another loss. Even so, these games illustrate just how close the Blue Jays were to a playoff appearance.

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