BALTIMORE – They were the games that ignited a coast-to-coast Canadian fan base, a rabid on-site crowd that made the Rogers Centre shake.
First, the Jose Bautista bat flip game, Oct. 14, 2015.
And next, the Edwin Encarnacion walkoff, Oct. 5, 2016.
That fan base has been waiting for more of the same ever since, a hunger created from two seasons of success after decades without.
And now they’re about to get it, thanks to the team clinching the American League’s top wildcard spot in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
So what’s the next must-watch moment to unfold for a packed house of more than 45,000 people at the Rogers Centre when the action begins on Friday? With playoff baseball returning to Toronto for the first time since 2016, a talented, driven and hungry team is ready to put on a show and create more iconic highlights for the reel.
“It’s a dream come true, to be honest,” Jays shortstop Bo Bichette said on Tuesday before his team’s game with the Orioles was postponed due to rain. ”When I was drafted by the Blue Jays, it was 2016 and they were an exciting team at the time. I remember watching those (playoff) games at the time and it was just chills thinking about having the opportunity to play in an environment like that.”
Bichette hand an affinity for those talented Jays teams for a couple of reasons. He was friends with Troy Tulowitzki, for one and for another: “Obviously I love to hit homers, so that was a natural team to root for.”
The Jays have said all the right things in recent days about wanting to play in front of a home crowd at their downtown dome. It’s a familiar refrain all around baseball, of course, but going to the Rogers Centre for a best-of-three series against a yet-to-be-determined opponent has to mean more to this group, doesn’t it?
It’s been six long years for the Jays on so many levels. A rebuild. Playing on the road through a pandemic. And on top of it all, a heart-breaking near miss a year ago when the team fell a game short of making the post season.
But here they are now, the top wildcard seed, which gets them home-field advantage against either Tampa Bay or Seattle. Should they win, the Jays would advance to face the Houston Astros in a best-of-five ALDS round.
“I’ve heard that the Rogers Centre is a completely different animal (in the playoffs) and I’m excited to see it,” reliever David Phelps said. “What that fan base can do to lift a team up … I’m excited.”
For the young core of the team, players like Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr., the meaning is even deeper and perhaps unique. Bichette talks about having to “grow up in front or the world” since making his big league debut. It was the weight of expectations thrust upon him and some of his teammates by virtue of their much-hyped potential.
It wasn’t always easy either, given the hype that preceded them in 2019 and has trailed them since. But they’ve grown stronger through it and now the stage is set to deliver on what has been expected of them.
“I just think that when you’re on a good team, people are watching and you’re growing up in front of everybody,” Bichette said. “Most players, they have the ability to grow up in the shadows and go through mistakes and things like that. We’re doing it in front of everybody.
“We’re blessed to have that opportunity. There’s no other way I’d want it, but I think it’s a matter of fact that we’re definitely growing and maturing in front of everybody. I think it brings us closer together, too. It’s something that’s fun to go through.”
Bichette’s teammate, George Springer, has watched that maturation – first from after, and for the past two seasons as a teammate. As a proven performer at the highest level, he understands and respects what he’s seen.
“Kind of unfairly, but deservedly so,” Springer said of the emergence of the young Jays core. “They’ve been expected to win while trying to develop at the same time. They’ve been learning the game, learning about themselves, discovering who they are going to be as players.
“They’ve learned what it takes to playing in the major leagues and at the same time be really, really, really talented. It’s tough, but it’s also a compliment.”
Bichette acknowledged the oddity of the 2022 season, in which the Jays have matched the win total from the previous year and can surpass it with success in Wednesday’s double header.
Maybe, the talented 24-year-old surmised, the wild swings of the current campaign can be attributed to the fact the team has known how good it is and was just waiting for big things to happen.
“In a way, we’ve been kind of waiting for the playoffs all year,” Bichette said. “That’s been part of our ups and downs, not being in the moment all the time. It’s just been waiting for this opportunity because of how close it was last year.”
Meanwhile, the record books and his personal statistics show that this week won’t mark the playoff debut for Bichette. That said, the critical component of the Jays offence is dismissive of the post-season appearance that followed the abbreviated 2020 season and was played before an empty stadium.
“There was none,” Bichette said when asked to describe the atmosphere at Tropicana Field where the Jays were swept by the Rays. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been part of the post season yet.”
Move over, Encarnacion and Bautista: The best, Bo believes, is yet to come.
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