Securing home-field advantage in the wild card round is a must for Blue Jays

After spending the entire 2020 season and most of 2021 away from Toronto, there’d be no better feeling for the Blue Jays than hosting a playoff series at the Rogers Centre this fall. And they’re close to achieving that goal.

The Blue Jays clinched a playoff spot Thursday afternoon after the Boston Red Sox beat the Baltimore Orioles.

To secure home-field advantage, though, more work still lies ahead of this group, but they’re trending in the right direction. Heading into Thursday's off day, Toronto controls the first wild card seed by two games, with the Tampa Bay Rays in second and Seattle Mariners in third.

The Blue Jays can control their fate by winning the majority of their seven remaining contests, putting immense pressure on the Rays to win down the stretch.

How meaningful would it be to host a best-of-three playoff series at home? Pretty significant. This organization last made the playoffs during the 16-team format in 2020, with the series occurring in Tampa Bay. As everyone remembers, it didn’t end well for Toronto, as they were blanked 2-0 in a wild card series.

The Toronto Blue Jays are so close to securing the American League's top wild card spot and home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs. (Getty Images)
The Toronto Blue Jays are so close to securing the American League's top wild card spot and home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs. (Getty Images)

There’s an obvious advantage to playing at home as the Blue Jays’ fan base stretches across an entire nation. No other MLB franchise is afforded that same luxury. The intense atmosphere is something that can’t be replicated outside the Rogers Centre.

Toronto’s playoff runs in 2015 and 2016 were truly special. They helped the rest of the baseball community - including players and coaches - realize that Canada isn't just a hockey nation. And that same excitement level is likely to return this October.

Granted, playing in Toronto hasn’t dramatically improved the team’s overall record this season, as they’re 44-33 at home and 43-35 on the road. But playing elsewhere in the first round, especially in Florida, would likely impact their odds of enjoying a deep postseason run.

The Rays will host all three games of a best-of-three series at Tropicana Field if they claim the first wild card seed. And since that stadium, which doubles as an outlet mall, has historically been a house of horrors for the Blue Jays, that wouldn’t be ideal.

Since it opened in 1990, the Rays are 133-87 against the Blue Jays all-time. If you include that dreadful 2020 wild card series, their record improves to 135-87 during this span.

Interestingly, Toronto fared pretty well at Tropicana Field this season, winning four of the nine contests. The club displayed some very encouraging signs in their latest trip, winning two straight against talented arms Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen.

But while the franchise has proven it can be victorious at the “Trop,” it’s never wise to tempt fate as Tampa Bay dominated at home, finishing 51-30 - third-best in the AL.

Anything can unfold in a best-of-three set, and if something unexpected transpires, the Blue Jays will be better equipped to handle any situation at home versus on the road. Playing at Rogers Centre should also benefit their starting rotation, too.

In all likelihood, right-hander José Berríos will start one of the three potential wild card games, and the 28-year-old is likely to fare much better if that outing takes place at home. Though he’s been inconsistent all season, his home splits have proven far more favourable than on the road.

Berríos has made 16 starts at the Rogers Centre in 2022, posting a 4.24 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 3.81 xFIP and .273 OPP AVG across 91.1 innings. The two-time All-Star also carries a 22.7 percent strikeout rate, 5.9 percent walk rate, 41.4 percent ground-ball rate and an 11.0 percent home-run-to-fly-ball (HR/FB) ratio.

On the road, the former Minnesota Twin has registered an inflated 6.75 ERA, 5.66 FIP, 4.66 xFIP and .313 OPP AVG over 74.2 innings in 15 starts. His strikeout (16.3 percent), walk (5.6 percent), ground-ball (39.1 percent) and HR/FB (16.8 percent) percentages are also significantly worse away from Rogers Centre.

In most instances, home and road splits aren’t usually a precise evaluation tool, however, Berríos might be an exception in this case. Considering how unpredictable his 2022 campaign has been thus far, a home start likely puts him in the best position to succeed.

It’ll also be crucial for the Blue Jays to secure home-field advantage before Game 162, which is currently assigned to ace Alek Manoah. But if the 24-year-old starts that game, it’ll surely limit his availability in the wild-card round.

Manoah would likely be available in relief, though he wouldn’t be able to start the opener of that series. As a result, Kevin Gausman would probably receive the nod, followed by Berríos and Ross Stripling in Games 2 and 3, respectively.

Toronto undoubtedly possesses a much higher chance of advancing to the next round if Manoah’s starting. Playing at home is vital, however, not as much as having the 2022 All-Star available for Game 1. But if the team locks up the first wild-card seed before Oct. 5, it can enjoy both outcomes.

Unlike the starting rotation, the offence has performed well no matter where they’ve played this season. The lineup has produced a 115 wRC+ at home and a 117 wRC+ on the road, according to FanGraphs. In saying that, they’d likely receive a home-crowd boost just as the offences did back in 2015 and 2016.

Rogers Communications, who owns the Blue Jays, would benefit from having a wild card series in Toronto, as well. Hosting at least two, possibly more, playoff games at the Rogers Centre would certainly help recover lost revenue from the last two seasons.

It would also allow the franchise’s loyal fan base to experience playoff baseball in person for the first time since 2016. That’s an opportunity no one is likely to take for granted after the team missed the postseason in 2021.

If the Blue Jays are to accomplish their mission, though, they’ll need to continue fending off the Rays - and the Mariners, to an extent - to open the 2022 playoffs at home.

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