TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays’ 22-year wait to return to the post-season took a while to soak in.
First there was overnight confusion over whether they had indeed secured at least a wild-card berth. Official confirmation only produced a muted response Saturday morning, with Jays downplaying the achievement.
But in the wake of Toronto’s 10-8 afternoon win over the Tampa Bay Rays, the players gave in to their inner party.
Champagne and beer flowed, cigar smoke billowed, and players danced as the sounds of “Don’t Panic” by American rapper French Montana boomed around a Rogers Centre clubhouse that had been long starved of success.
And everyone got soaked.
“If you think you’re wet now, wait ’til we clinch this thing,” said jubilant outfielder Kevin Pillar, who nearly drowned during an alcohol shower courtesy of teammates.
“We haven’t lost track of our goals,” he added. “We want to win the American League East. That was our goal from Day 1.”
Toronto (89-65) has eight games remaining to meet that goal.
Slugger Jose Bautista, a cigar chomped between his teeth, wore goggles and a GoPro camera strapped to his head. Edwin Encarnacion, clutching a gold bottle and cigar, grooved to the beat.
Pitchers David Price, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez hung on to each other, careening across the clubhouse.
The players wore baseball caps with the word Postseason emblazoned on the front and T-shirts that read Take October.
Toronto manager John Gibbons only hinted at the wild celebrations in his post-game meeting with the media. He came in with a delicate glass of bubbly, saying there had merely been a toast in the clubhouse.
A smiling Gibbons walked through the locker-room mayhem minutes later, balancing a plate of food. Like teenagers whose parents were away for the weekend, the Jays partied hard in his absence.
News of the wild-card berth secured came in the middle of the night courtesy of baseball number-crunchers via social media. The Jays and Major League Baseball, believing one last magic number had to fall, were awaiting developments in Saturday play.
It turned out that given the remaining schedules of the Rangers, Astros and Angels, the Jays had clinched a wild-card no matter what.
Gibbons only found out upon his arrival at the ball park Saturday.
“Everybody’s gratified,” he said in the morning. “It’s been so long and the guys have played great. They really turned it on the last two months. So it’s a good feeling. But we’re trying for much more than that.”
“It’s nice to know that we’re in the playoffs for sure. That’s great. But our goal is to win every game, until it’s over,” echoed Toronto catcher Russell Martin.
The Jays juggernaut has been aimed at the playoffs for some time now.
The additions of all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and pitching ace Price at the trade deadline added to an already rich hand. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is on MVP pace, with Bautista and Encarnacion also swinging big bats.
The return of Stroman from knee surgery has been inspirational while young closer Roberto Osuna has been a revelation.
Role players have also stepped up, allowing the Jays to win by long ball or small ball.
The city, meanwhile has got on board en masse. Saturday’s crowd of 47,094 was the 20th sellout in 22 games and the 26th of the season.
Blue Jays gear is everywhere.
Martin only learned of the wild-card berth mid-interview two hours before the first pitch Saturday.
“I really don’t know what to say but I feel like we still have work to do,” he said. “It doesn’t change the way I feel right now.”
Martin said making the playoffs was no surprise, despite the way it happened.
“It’s definitely nice to solidify that playoff berth but we all know that we were going to make the playoffs. It was just a matter of time. So that’s why there’s really not that much excitement, I feel like, this morning.”
Indeed, the clubhouse was no different than any other pre-game. That did not last, however.
The Jays and presumably most of their fans went to bed Friday night thinking there was one more hurdle to cross before returning to the post-season for the first time since winning a second straight World Series in 1993.
Toronto came into Friday night’s game needing a win over Tampa combined with losses by the Twins and the Angels to secure a wild-card berth, or so it appeared.
The Jays won, the Twins lost but the Angels beat Seattle.
It seemed like it was “To be continued.” But it turns out only two of the Rangers, Astros and Angels can finish at 88-74 – the record the Blue Jays would finish at if they lost all nine of their remaining games — because of the trio’s head-to-head games with one another.
One would win the AL West after a tiebreaker, while the other would claim a wild card along with the Blue Jays or Yankees.