Blue Jays' success rides on rising above the pressures 'contender status' brings

TORONTO — It's a tough balance between bringing the noise and learning to block it.

Amid heavy anticipation and promise, the Toronto Blue Jays are gearing up for a crucial season and their first Opening Day at home since 2019.

There will be as much pressure as there are buzz words around the tentative American League favourites. The trick, then, will be not letting those turn into distractions.

"You just gotta continue to keep your head down, from Day 1 until the end," said Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette from Rogers Centre on Thursday, the eve of the team's Opening Day. "We gotta continue to work hard and push through no matter what month it is."

The Blue Jays put the league on notice last year, which means there will be a lot more pressure this time around. (Getty)
The Blue Jays put the league on notice last year, which means there will be a lot more pressure this time around. (Getty)

You'll hear a lot, over 162 games, that it's important to take it one day at a time, focus on what you can control and not think too far ahead. On the other hand, the Blue Jays understand exactly what's expected of them after months of bold additions and clear improvement.

Toronto traded for star third baseman Matt Chapman, signed starter Kevin Gausman to a five-year deal, extended José Berríos and took a chance on Yusei Kikuchi, among several other moves in the offseason. Those, paired with a stellar core of young players such as Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bichette and Alek Manoah, has turned Toronto into a favourite to make the World Series and potentially win it all. All of that before playing a single inning of the 2022 regular season.

As much as one tries to stay in the moment, it can get hard not to evoke October in April.

"Everybody knows the talent we have and the things we're capable of," said Bichette. "So, we're going to do everything we can to accomplish a World Series."

That's the drive the Blue Jays want from their star shortstop, and it sounds like the right mentality for a young guy like Bichette. The entire club, in fact, seems to embrace the pressure that comes with the 2022 season, and rightfully so, considering how much adversity and potential distractions this club had to endure over the past couple of campaigns.

"That's what we want," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo on Thursday. "Believe me, they're ready."

How, then, to handle expectations with a mindful approach?

"To continue to focus on things we can control, focus on the team, take the pressure off of individual accomplishments," said Toronto GM Ross Atkins. "If these guys go out and enjoy one another and enjoy the game as much as they have shown to in the past, they're going to be successful."

This club knows that adversity will find it.

The Jays are finally back in Toronto for good after nearly two whole seasons away — a great place to start when it comes to lifting pressure off the proverbial shoulder. Still, as any team, they're subject to possible slumps, injuries, roster shuffling and even vaccination statuses.

A huge litmus test for the team's concentration level came right at Spring Training, when pitching coach Pete Walker was arrested in Florida and charged with a DUI.

"Pete came to me very early in that process, came to Charlie, obviously, addressed the team," Atkins said of the ordeal. "It's still in a legal process, so I'm limited to how much I can comment on that. Once we have clarity on the legal process, then we'll look to make a decision, if there's things we need to do."

Atkins says that, "out of respect for the process," the team is waiting to take any action toward Walker.

For players like Bichette and Guerrero Jr., distractions may creep up in the form of contract extension talks.

"We've had conversations," said Bichette. "I think right now we're focused on the season, accomplishing what we think we're capable of. Right now, we're not talking about that."

But the overarching, ever-present extraneous factor for the 2022 Blue Jays will be their high ceiling.

Toronto opens the 2022 season as one of the most popular bets to make the World Series out of the American League. The team is expected to win over 90 games again this year and perhaps even vie for the outright division title in an insanely competitive AL East.

"We're focused on things we can control, and certainly we can't put a lot of emphasis into those assessments or evaluations," said Atkins. "I can say that I'm so happy for our players and our fans that there's more energy and more excitement around the team."

That energy is palpable, as is this team's will to get back into the postseason.

After last year's 91-win miss, the Blue Jays seem sharper, more confident and better tooled to handle the noise that comes with an entire season of contention. They've gotten used to having all eyes on them.

"We learned a lot from (last September)," said Bichette. "Emotions were high. You have to learn to control your emotions in environments like that."

Every single game will be postseason loud this time around.

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