Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Toronto vs. Baltimore: The Battle for First Place


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No one really expected them to be in a pennant race this late into the season. After an offseason that was relatively dormant and a first half that was riddled with injuries, not many anticipated the Blue Jays to be where they are right now.

In fact, it still sounds odd; it's the beginning of August and the Toronto Blue Jays are battling for first place.

A strong showing against the Orioles could not only close the gap atop the standings in the AL East, but it could also give the Blue Jays some breathing room against other teams in the American League vying for a Wild Card spot.

One might tend to get a bit hyperbolic in this situation, but I don't think the importance of this series can't be understated. It may only be three games of the 162, but this series could have postseason implications.

This could be the most important series the Blue Jays have played in 15 years.

The last time the Blue Jays occupied a playoff spot was early August of 1999, when they held the Wild Card spot. They of course would eventually lose the spot down the stretch to the Boston Red Sox, however they did play meaningful games in August and September.

Fast forward to today and the Toronto Blue Jays are in a similar position; they are currently holding down a Wild Card spot, but have the Yankees, Royals and Mariners nipping at their heels.

The Baltimore Orioles may be the AL East division leader, but much like the Blue Jays themselves, they are not a team without their flaws.

Much like Toronto, Baltimore is a home run hitting team, which means they often live and die by the long ball. Their starting rotation also lacks one true "ace", however their starting five have performed adequately enough, just like the Blue Jays.

So it's not like the Orioles are like the Tigers or Athletics or even the Angels; this big monolith of a  team that can't be taken down. Mind you, that may be an issue for either the Blue Jays or the Orioles when it comes time to face them in the playoffs, but I digress.

The Blue Jays had arguably the easiest schedule out of the All-Star break, but this series begins what will truly be a daunting rest of the schedule for the Blue Jays down the stretch.

There are nine more games versus the Orioles, seven against the Yankees, six against the pesky Rays, four against the Mariners, and three against the Tigers. So the next eight weeks will be a true litmus test for this Blue Jays squad.

Right now, the Orioles are on a Blue Jays-esque run from earlier this season; the Blue Jays went 26-9 from May 1st to June 6th, and have been 22-29 since. The Orioles however were 18-17 from May 1st to June 6th, and have gone 33-19 since June 6th.

Many seriously questioned whether the Blue Jays' pace in May and early June was sustainable, and it very well proved not to be. Subsequently, many are also wondering whether the Orioles' current pace is sustainable as well.

Both teams have their flaws, but ultimately they appear to be two very evenly matched squads this season. And it just so happens they both begin the month of August hoping to keep their playoff hopes alive into September and October.

And I guess that's all you can really ask of this Blue Jays team; that they play meaningful games down the stretch. Because it's not just that the Blue Jays have a 20 year playoff drought, it's also that they haven't been anywhere even close to the playoffs since 1993.

Not even within sniffing distance of a playoff spot late in the season for the better part of two decades. However, a strong showing here against the Orioles may go a long way to quelling that concern.

Image courtesy of Patrick Smith/Getty Images

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