Blue Jays begin postseason journey at home with clinch of top WC seed

BALTIMORE — Soaked and shivering, the Blue Jays pulled off a key win Monday night at Camden Yards, putting themselves in position to clinch the top American League Wild Card seed and home-field advantage in the Wild Card Series.

After handling their own business with a rain-shortened 5-1 win over the Orioles, the Blue Jays warmed up in the clubhouse and watched the Mariners take on the Tigers. Seattle lost to Detroit, 4-3, securing the home-field advantage for Toronto against either the Mariners or the Rays.

Monday’s win featured rain through every moment, slowly getting stronger as the night went on. Oddly enough, the tarp was finally called out when Toronto had the bases loaded in the top of the eighth with Whit Merrifield coming to the plate, already 3-for-3. It could have been more, but the Blue Jays weren’t about to argue. After a 55-minute rain delay, the game was called.

“We were in our sweats playing cards at about 6:25 when their GM decided that it was [starting]on time. That was a challenge,” Merrifield said. “We just joked around and started calling it a blue-collar game. It’s not pretty. It’s not comfortable. It’s not fun a lot of the time. It’s not easy, but it’s games like that and situations like this when we know what we’re playing for.”

Home-field advantage has been a priority all along for the Blue Jays, but especially in the days since they clinched their postseason spot. That clinch was an odd one, coming on their off-day last Thursday when these same Orioles lost to the Red Sox. Toronto celebrated the next night — fortunately following a win — but the club has kept its foot on the gas since.

This weekend’s dominant sweep of the Red Sox, who the Blue Jays beat 16-3 in the season series, set them up not only to take care of business in Baltimore, but to do it with some time to spare.

Clinching in advance of Game 162 on Wednesday allows Toronto to turn to someone like Yusei Kikuchi or Casey Lawrence for the final game of the season, giving the bullpen an extra day of rest while allowing interim manager John Schneider to give some regulars a day off their feet.

The Blue Jays also have Lourdes Gurriel Jr. working his way back from a left hamstring injury and Santiago Espinal working his way back from a left oblique injury. Both are close, ramping up each day, and Gurriel plans to run the bases in Baltimore on Tuesday, if the weather permits. In a perfect world, one could be activated to get some live at-bats in the final game of the season, but the clock is ticking on those rehabs.

Monday’s win has to leave the Blue Jays feeling more confident about what a potential Game 3 in the Wild Card Series or an early game in an AL Division Series could look like, though.

José Berríos threw six innings of one-run ball, striking out five on a nightmarish evening for pitchers. Berríos knows this type of weather well from his days with the Twins, of course, but the right-hander needed an outing like this. The Blue Jays needed to see it, too.

“He was staying focused with the mound being kind of a mess,” Schneider said. “He landed his curveball the second time through the order, and he was dialed in. We had to let him know really quick that we were going [to play].”

Berríos finishes the season with a 5.23 ERA, the highest among all qualified starters in MLB. You couldn’t have possibly predicted a number like that coming from Berríos, who has spent nearly his entire career as one of the most consistent starters in the Majors, but that went out the window at times in 2022. That will quickly be forgotten, though, if Berríos is able to come up big in a couple of postseason spots for the Blue Jays.

“This was a tough year, obviously. Everybody knows,” Berríos said. “One thing I know is that I never gave up. I always show up and do what I have to do. I’m happy to be able to prepare myself and work every day, and thank God we finish the regular season healthy and strong. Now, we’re ready for the postseason.”

Now, the Blue Jays’ focus is clearer than ever.

As a Wild Card team, they’ll need to take a long road through the American League bracket, but it’s all about where they start.

“We want to go home,” Merrifield said.