What a strange year 2021 was for the Toronto Blue Jays.
What a thrilling, exciting, frustrating, inspiring, bittersweet season. It was one that was full of firsts. It saw them transform mid-season from a promising team with a middle-of-the-road record into arguably the best team in the league. And it saw them in the hunt for the playoffs right up until the very last day of the regular season.
In the end though, they fell one win short. That's how close it was.
As Blue Jays fans sort through the mixture of pride and disappointment over this near miss, we'd like to take a look at their still record-setting season, and look forward to what will no doubt be brighter days to come.
And lots of them!
Three home stadiums
In 2020, the pandemic dramatically changed baseball, as it did with all pro sports. The season was far shorter and stadiums were mostly empty. But aside from limited stadium capacity to start, 2021 promised a full-length season and a return to normal. Normal for everyone except the Blue Jays.
As Canada's only Major League Baseball (MLB) team, they were not yet allowed to cross the border easily. So while every other team used their own ballpark, the Jays had to play all of their home games out of their tiny spring training stadium in Dunedin, Florida. And though Florida in April beats Toronto weather-wise, this location was less than inviting.
For every home game, fans of the visiting team—whose cities were usually much closer than Toronto—flooded the ballpark. They booed the home team loudly, and cheered the visitors. That's not how it's supposed to work! Things didn't get much better when in June the Jays switched locations to Buffalo, N.Y., where their farm (or junior) team plays. Now their home field was even closer to the cities of their rivals, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The booing at home continued.
Altogether, the Jays lost more home games in Dunedin and Buffalo than they won.
Home for real
Then in late July, the team got the news they had hoped for. The Canadian government was finally going to allow them to return to Toronto. It had been 670 days since they last played in Rogers Centre. The fans were loud and proud, and the team responded immediately, winning 9 of their first 11 games in Toronto.
At the end of an August road trip, the team fell back again, and it looked like the postseason was impossible. Then something incredible happened. They went on a run of 18–5, including a dramatic four-game sweep in New York of the Yankees. Toronto went from being nine wins out of a playoff spot to being in a playoff position and in control. All they needed to do was hold on.
Which was something they just couldn't quite do. They ended the season with a respectable run of seven wins and six losses. Not bad, but just not good enough to stay ahead of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who both ended strongly.
Even a final series of the year where they won three games against the Baltimore Orioles by a combined score of 28 to 9 couldn't seal the deal. The final records of the teams battling for the final American League playoff spots?
New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox with 92 wins and 70 losses each.
Toronto Blue Jays with 91 wins and 71 losses. It was that close. As Jays star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put it simply: "It hurts."
So much to celebrate
But looking past that disappointment, let's take a moment to celebrate just how good this team was this year. And let's start with Vlad.
At just 22 years old, he is a serious MVP candidate. He tied for the league lead in home runs (48) and led or was Top 5 in most other categories. He also broke the MLB record for homers by a player 22 or younger.
And speaking of homers, the third-best player in the majors was a teammate, Marcus Semien. His 45 homers set a record for the most-ever by a second baseman. And on top of that, the Jays set a team record for home runs in a season thanks to the slugging of Teoscar Hernández, Bo Bichette, George Springer, and Lourdes Guirrel Jr. They also were one of very few teams ever to boast four hitters with over 100 RBI (runs batted in)—Hernández, Guerrero, Semien, and Bichette.
But the Jays didn't just outscore opponents. They also got great pitching from the likes of José Berríos, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, and Jordan Romano. But the crown jewel was Robbie Ray. How good was he? This hard-throwing ace is considered to the favourite for the Cy Young award as the best pitcher of the year.
So much to look forward to
A record-setting offence. Some of the best pitchers in the league. How did they miss out on the playoffs?
Bottom line? The Jays lost a lot of very close games, and lost a lot of games at home early in the year. But from July on, they were one of the very best teams in the league. Which is why we're very excited about what is to come.
Most of Toronto's team is very young. Players like Guerrero and Bichette aren't even at their best yet. And unlike the great Jays rosters of 2015 and 2016, they'll be here for a long time. Next year, they'll be playing a full season out of Toronto, behind the fans that love them. And they'll be wiser, more experienced, and hungry.
As Semien said after yesterday's game: "Our team really came together. We had some fans to play in front of. We became, in my opinion, the best team in baseball, but it was just a tick too late."
You can bet that they won't start so slowly in 2022. We already can't wait!