The young core on the Toronto Blue Jays made significant strides in the pandemic-shortened season. An unexpected playoff appearance was a welcome development too.
A team built for the future took a big step forward in an unusual 2020 campaign marked by games in fan-less stadiums and a home ballpark in Buffalo.
The Blue Jays rolled with the punches under second-year manager Charlie Montoyo and earned the eighth and final playoff seed in the American League.
Being swept by the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays stung, but the experience of playing meaningful September games and gaining valuable playoff reps will benefit a club that's on the rise.
""We're going to learn from it as a team and pick each other up and move on," said Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen. "But just having that feeling of being here, and with what we've gone through the whole season, we're proud."
After three years of cutting payroll and gutting the roster, the front office opened its wallet last winter by signing pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year deal worth US$80 million.
Ryu was a dependable ace for an improved rotation that was picked up by a stronger bullpen. Pressure was lessened on the team offence and players were given rope to learn from their mistakes in the field.
An uneven 7-11 start didn't derail a team that proved to be a tough out despite some significant injuries. A six-game win streak followed and the Jays didn't fall below the .500 mark again.
A 32-28 finish was a big step up from a 67-95 season a year earlier.
"A great season for our kids and a great lesson here to see what the playoffs are all about," said manager Charlie Montoyo.
Tampa Bay managed only four hits in a 3-1 victory in Game 1 but lit up Ryu early in an 8-2 rout in Game 2 of the best-of-three wild-card series.
Montoyo took a risk by pushing Ryu back a day and going with a Matt Shoemaker-Robbie Ray combo for six innings in Game 1. While that duo performed well, Ryu picked the worst time to have a rare off-day on the mound.
The pitching gamble also meant Taijuan Walker - the team's second-best starter - didn't pitch at all in the playoffs. He was lined up for a Game 3 that never came.
Toronto starters rarely made it past the fifth inning this season. Montoyo played the odds that a reliever was a better option than trying to go through a lineup for a third time.
Shortened starts were a trend around the major leagues, especially with expanded rosters creating a deeper bullpen pool. Sometimes Toronto starters bristled at the early hook while heavy usage and injury woes eventually caught up to the bullpen.
The Blue Jays' nucleus of young players improved this year despite some growing pains.
Second baseman Cavan Biggio looks primed to be a franchise anchor and shortstop Bo Bichette appears to be the team's heartbeat. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., offered a taste of his tantalizing potential and Teoscar Hernandez broke out as one of the game's top sluggers.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., became a reliable everyday player and Rowdy Tellez showed his big bat was a legitimate weapon. Rafael Dolis and Anthony Bass were effective closers and Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., was a solid setup man.
"They believe they can win and they believe they can get better," Montoyo said.
There were disappointments too. Closer Ken Giles missed almost the entire season and will undergo Tommy John surgery.
Pitchers Tanner Roark and Shun Yamaguchi had inflated numbers. Infielder Jonathan Villar never seemed settled after arriving via trade from Miami.
From a broad-stroke perspective, there's much to like about this Toronto team. It'll be up to general manager Ross Atkins to build on the club's base in what should be another busy off-season.
"Being here in this moment, with the (unusual) season and all that stuff, I think it was all beneficial," Jansen said. "We're going to take a lot out of it.
"We're going to get a lot of work done in the off-season and we're hungry for more. So we'll be back."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press