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Breakdowning Troy Stecher's series-winning goal in Game 6 against the Blues – Vancouver Is Awesome

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The last time the Canucks won a playoff series, Troy Stecher was 17 years old and playing for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. A native of Richmond, BC, Stecher grew up a Canucks fan and the 2011 playoff run looms large in his memory.

Could he have imagined at the time that the next time the Canucks won a playoff series, he would score the game-winning goal? 

Stecher downplayed the importance of the series win after the game — “We’re not content, we’ve still got a lot of work to do” — but deep inside, he must be buzzing. It’s literally the type of moment every young Canucks fan dreams of, stepping up in a big playoff game for your hometown team and scoring the gamewinner.

To top it off, it was one of the prettiest goals of the playoffs, a stunning tic-tac-toe passing play that had the St. Louis Blues, one of the best defensive teams in the NHL all season, completely lost in their defensive coverage.

To get a better sense of just how good that goal truly was and how completely the Canucks bamboozled the Blues, we need to break it down in a feature we at Pass it to Bulis like to call Breakdowning. 

First, the goal:

[embedded content]

Dang, that was nice. Now, let’s break it on down.

Let’s start with a roll call. We’re going to take it back to 14 seconds before the goal, when the Blues’ Justin Faulk gained the zone on the right side. Unbeknownst to the Blues, this is about when things started to go wrong for them. 

Roll call!

The Canucks have a variation of their top line on the ice: Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, and Jake Virtanen, along with the defence pairing of Quinn Hughes and Chris Tanev. They’ve been on the ice for about 34 seconds now, getting close to the average shift length that head coach Travis Green has in mind for his forwards, so they should be looking to make a change. That’s going to work to their advantage.

They’re up against the first line of the Blues — Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and Rob Thomas — with Alex Pietrangelo coming onto the ice for Marco Scandella as the play develops in the Vancouver end. He’ll be the last man back as Faulk jumps up the ice, trying to spark a comeback from a 2-0 deficit.

Stecherwinner02Faulk is not a better skater than Hughes.

Hughes keeps a great gap on Faulk, effortlessly matching his skating stride to keep Faulk to the outside. Instead of turning back to maintain possession, Faulk opts for a bad angle shot, perhaps desperate at this point to make something happen for the Blues in this game.

It’s a bad idea. Hughes has his stick in Faulk’s shooting lane, so any attempt that would hit the net is going to get deflected away. But Faulk’s shot was never going to hit the net. He misses completely.

And look at that! The stands may be empty, but there’s someone behind the glass! It’s a photographer! Neat! 

Stecherwinner03And here. we. go.

Faulk’s shot rings around the glass, hits the dasher, and keeps going, all the way out to the neutral zone. Pettersson, late coming back to the defensive zone as he was furthest up the ice for the Canucks a moment earlier, is in the perfect spot to pick up speed en route to the puck.

Miller, recognizing the potential for an odd-man rush, starts to churn the ice, while Rob Thomas is a couple steps behind him and just starting to realize the danger.

Meanwhile, Schenn takes a wide turn to the right, ending up all the way in the corner of the Canucks’ end of the ice. He’s completely out of view in the above shot, which is going to leave him well behind the play as it moves up ice.

Stecherwinner04Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain, coming off the bench.

Let’s take the reverse angle for a moment as Pettersson carries the puck into the Blues’ zone and changes his pace, slowing down to create a wider gap between himself and Pietrangelo.

I want to take this view, because it shows Virtanen and Tanev’s biggest contribution: getting off the ice. That’s no slight to either of them; it was the right move. Virtanen could have tried to jump up with Pettersson and Miller to create a 3-on-2, but the Blues were backchecking hard — too hard as we’ll see in a moment — and it was a better option for him to keep his shift short.

Meanwhile, with Hughes jumping up to join the rush, Tanev makes the sensible decision to get a fresh defenceman on the ice.

Brandon Sutter steps on for Virtanen; Stecher steps on for Tanev. Notably, not a single Blues player is paying attention to who’s coming off the bench: they’re single-mindedly focused on the backcheck, allowing Sutter and Stecher to sneak into the zone undetected.

“Keep your distance, Stecher,” Sutter probably said, “but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance.”

Stecherwinner05Not so Smooth from Rob Thomas

It’s amazing how poorly this goes for the Blues, because it really shouldn’t. At this moment, it’s a 2-on-4. Even with Hughes following up the rush as the trailer, it’s still a 3-on-4, and Hughes is being pursued by Schenn as well, ultimately to the Blues’ detriment. 

The Blues have plenty of players back to defend, they just all get fixated on a few players and the puck. They backcheck hard, but they don’t backcheck well. There’s a difference.

Unlike Faulk, who charged to the net heedless of anything else and settled for a bad angle shot, Pettersson keeps his head on a swivel and stops up, creating all sorts of room. Meanwhile, Miller charges hard to the net, picked up by Schwartz.

The biggest problem for the Blues: Thomas. Remember how he was a step behind Miller? Recognizing that he had lost his man, Thomas buried his head and churned ice on the backcheck, an admirable effort. But effort towards the wrong goal is wasted effort.

With Schwartz picking up Miller, Thomas needed to read the situation and realize that he needed to pick up a different man. Instead, he ends up double-teaming Miller, who never even touches the puck on this play, and Thomas ends up completely lost for the remaining five seconds before the goal.

Stecherwinner06Stay on target. Stay on target. Stay on target.

Even now, as Pettersson finds the trailing Hughes, all is not lost for the Blues. It’s a 3-on-4 with Schenn backchecking as well. All five Blues skaters are back in the defensive zone: all they have to do is get organized, make good reads, and pick up their checks.

Unfortunately for the Blues, like the Library of Alexandria in 47 BC, there were no good reads to be found.

Instead, the Blues get caught puck-watching, with everyone’s eyes locked on to the puck on the stick of Hughes. To an extent, it’s understandable: Hughes is incredibly dangerous with the puck thanks to his soft hands and magic skates. The thing is, that makes it all the more important that you cover everyone else on the ice effectively and take away passing lanes, or Hughes will pick you apart.

Well, there is one player that isn’t watching the puck. Schwartz, who backchecked so effectively on Miller, makes a crucial mistake: he keeps skating. When Miller stops up in front of Jordan Binnington, Schwartz keeps going. If he stops and battles Miller in front of the net, that changes everything.

He doesn’t.

Stecherwinner07lol

Let me know if you can spot the problem for the Blues, here. You probably don’t even need my expertly-drawn illustrations pointing out what’s gone wrong.

Schwartz is off in the corner, looping around to rejoin the play. Thomas, Faulk, and Schenn are all locked in on Hughes. That’s four players for the Blues all around one player for the Canucks. In case you flunked math, that means it’s a 4-on-1 for the Canucks everywhere else on the ice.

Of all the Blues, Faulk is the one that seems to be doing the right thing. He backchecked hard, but didn’t lose sight of Hughes, the trailer, who was his responsibility. As Pettersson passed the puck, Faulk peeled off Pettersson and tried to close the gap on Hughes, and he’s doing a decent job. His stick is angling Hughes to the outside, preventing a good quality shot.

It’s the other three that are a disasterpiece of defending. 

Schwartz, as said previously, should have stayed on Miller in front of the net, and is instead off in the middle of nowhere. Thomas, who blindly backchecked Miller when he was already covered, is now in no man’s land, covering nobody. Schenn is fixated on Hughes, when he should pass off that responsibility and maybe do a shoulder check to see if there are any other Canucks skaters on the ice, because usually there are at least five.

Of course, if Schenn hadn’t taken such a wide loop in the Canucks’ zone earlier in this sequence, he wouldn’t be chasing the play right now. And if Thomas had stayed above Miller, he wouldn’t have chased and ended up in no man’s land. And if Faulk hadn’t missed the net on a bad angle shot, none of this would’ve happened. It’s a domino effect.

Stecherwinner08We now present this goal in spin-o-rama vision!

Everything is blurry at this point because it all happens so fast, but it’s set up by everything that preceded it.

Schenn uselessly finishes his check on Hughes, as if to show that he didn’t completely screw up and was doing the right thing all along. He wasn’t.

Schwartz runs into Schenn, taking him even more completely out of the play.

Thomas is completely lost in the woods. If he had looked around instead of locking his eyes on the puck, he might have seen Sutter skating to the backdoor and done something useful. Instead, he just stands in the middle of the ice and watches the Canucks pass the puck around him. 

Pietrangelo tries to get his stick on the pass to Pettersson, but he’s not even close. To make matters worse for Pietrangelo, Pettersson makes a slick spin-o-rama move to get the puck over to Sutter, and all of Pietrangelo’s momentum is now heading in the opposite direction of the puck.

The only one who does something useful here iis once again Faulk, who identifies that Miller is alone in front and moves to check him, lifting his stick to prevent a backdoor feed from Sutter for a tap-in goal. 

But seriously, that spin pass from Pettersson is something else. 

Stecherwinner09Proper posture is essential to your long-term health.

I know it seems like I’m picking on Thomas, but this might be the most damning shot of the entire breakdown. The puck has gone to a wide open Sutter at the side of the net. Stecher is even more wide open at the top of the faceoff circle. Thomas is checking no one. The Blues are down 2-0 already and can’t afford another goal against. This is a desperate situation.

Thomas is just standing there, ramrod straight, just watching the puck.

He’s blown this sequence about as badly as he possibly could and it hasn’t even clicked in his head that he might want to try to do something about it.

Stecherwinner10Nice try, Thomas.

Let’s switch to one last angle for the goal itself. Stecher steps into Sutter’s pass and buries it off the post and in, but let’s take note of just how much space there is for Stecher to shoot on the blocker side.

The reason there’s so much space is Binnington was caught on his post to prevent Sutter from trying to jam the puck in at the side of the net. When Sutter passes, instead of making a hard push to the top of the crease to cut off the angle, Binnington simply stands up.

I put a line across the top of Binnington’s butterfly to emphasize just how deep in his crease he is for Stecherr’s shot. To have any chance of making the save, he needed to be right at the top, but he instead lands a couple feet short. That leaves all sorts of space for Stecher to pick his spot.

Even if Binnington does push out hard to the top of the crease, Stecher might still score, as it was a fantastic shot, but Binnington doesn’t even give himself a chance.

Meanwhile, there’s poor Rob Thomas, finally realizing that he needed to do something. That something was to dive head first across Stecher’s shooting lane, ducking his head in desperate hope that he won’t take the puck directly off the ol’ noggin. He’s far too late, of course: by the time Thomas actually reaches the shooting lane, the puck has already hit the post.

View post on imgur.com

On the plus side, Thomas ducking his head away from the shot gave him the perfect view to watch the puck go in, which is fitting given how much puck-watching he did throughout the entire sequence.

Though that’s not really a plus for Thomas. Literally, it was a minus for Thomas.

Stecherbreakdowning11Ouch.

Sorry Thomas, this Breakdowning wasn’t very nice to you. Better luck next time.

 

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How they made it back: A look at everything since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs – TSN

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This wasn’t supposed to be the year the Toronto Blue Jays took the big leap forward.

But, like so many other things in 2020, here we are.

When MLB announced it was expanding the postseason from 10 to 16 teams in an effort to recoup lost revenue on top of a drastically reduced schedule, it changed everything. No longer were the young Blue Jays a year or two away from competing for a spot in October. Almost instantly, the playoffs were there for the taking.

They’re far from perfect. But in a season like this they don’t have to be.

With Toronto set to play playoff baseball for the first time since 2016 later on Tuesday, here is a look at their most significant periods of the last four years..


 

The changing of the guard

Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion were among the most feared middle-of-the-order duos in baseball for years. From 2010 to 2016, they combined for nine All-Star appearances, 480 homers and 1,307 RBI. Both were essential in Toronto’s playoff runs but nothing lasts forever. Especially when it comes down to money.

Bautista and Encarnacion were scheduled to become free agents at the end of 2016 and re-signing both seemed like a difficult task. Bautista told reporters the previous February that he was not a believer in hometown discounts. What the right fielder was asking for was never made publicly clear, but it seemed like he was aiming high. On the other hand, Encarnacion was coming off 42 home runs and a career-high 127 RBIs, so it didn’t seem like he’d be accepting much of a bargain-deal, either.

In mid-November, the Jays reached a three-year, $33 million deal with designated hitter Kendrys Morales, all but eliminating the chance of Encarnacion returning. In January, he signed a multi-year deal with Cleveland, the same team that ended the Jays’ season months earlier.

Atkins: Signing of Morales “makes things slightly less likely for Edwin”

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins spoke Friday and said the signing of Kendrys Morales decreases the likelihood of Edwin Encarnacion coming back to Toronto, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility.

Bautista ended up returning to the Jays one a one-year deal but struggled mightily in 2017, hitting just .203 with a .366 slugging percentage.

With Encarnacion gone and Bautista a shell of himself, the results showed. The Jays went from fourth in homers and ninth in runs scored to 10th in longballs and 26th in runs. The lack of offence was apparent right away as the Jays scored more than four runs just twice in their first 10 games. They dropped nine of those and finished fourth in the AL East at 76-86.

A glimpse of the future

In July of 2015, the Blue Jays signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a free agent at 16 years old. He quickly shot up the Jays’ system and became one of the best prospects in baseball in the years that followed.

With Josh Donaldson’s contract set to expire at the end of 2018 and few signs of friendly dialogue between him and the front office, many felt Guerrero was the natural successor at the hot corner.

When Toronto wrapped up spring training with a two-game series in Montreal against the St. Louis Cardinals in late March, fans were abuzz at the possibility of seeing the 19-year-old phenom. They didn’t just want to look ahead to the future, but also be reminded of the past. Guerrero’s father spent the first eight seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career in Montreal and was the franchise’s last true superstar before the team moved to Washington D.C. in 2004.

Vlad Jr. received a standing ovation upon entering the game in the seventh inning but didn’t pick up a hit in his first two at-bats. Looking back, all anyone remembers was day two, anyway.

He entered the game as a defensive replacement again and eventually stepped to the plate in the ninth inning with the score still 0-0 against hard-throwing Cardinals righty Jack Flaherty.

Flaherty fell behind in the count 1-0 and came back with a slider in the second pitch of the at-bat. Except he left it up and out over the plate and Guerrero Jr. didn’t miss it, barrelling one up into the left centre field seats just like his father had done so many times before for a walk-off winner.

Must See: Vladdy Jr. walks it off

In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, Vladimir Guererro Jr. hit a solo home run to lift the Blue Jays over the Cardinals at the Big O in Montreal.

“You don’t see many celebrations in spring training games. That was pretty neat,” then manager John Gibbons told reporters.

Jays shake things up

In case things weren’t clear the season before, the Jays launched themselves into a full rebuild in 2018. They got out to a fast 12-5 start but ended the month of May six games under .500 and fourth in the AL East. With little hope of competing, on came the trades.

Utilityman Steve Pearce was the first to go in late June, landing with the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Santiago Espinal. Next came J.A. Happ in the midst of an All-Star season, who was sent to the New York Yankees for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney. The Jays also traded reliever Seunghwan Oh to the Colorado Rockies that day.

Toronto’s next trade had more to do with just baseball. On May 8, star closer Roberto Osuna was arrested and charged with a single count of assault. He was subsequently placed on administrative leave and later suspended 75 games under MLB-MLBPA’s joint Domestic Violence Policy.

Less than a week before he was permitted to return, the Houston Astros acquired Osuna in exchange for right-hander Ken Giles and pitching prospects David Paulino and Hector Perez.

“We do feel a responsibility to the fans and we do feel empathy for the fans and we ultimately work for the fans,” general manager Ross Atkins told reporters. “That’s how we do our jobs. We are human and it is very difficult for accusations not to influence us in some way.

“Having said that, this made sense for the organization from a baseball perspective.”

The prosecution withdrew the charge against Osuna later that year in exchange for a one-year agreement he stay away from the mother of his child and continue counselling.

Toronto’s next big trade was one that fans saw coming for a while, but it wasn’t the most popular of moves at the time. In the midst of his second injury-plagued season in a row and hampered by a calf strain that saw his trade value depreciate exponentially, the Jays dealt former MVP Josh Donaldson to Cleveland for a player to be named later.

And nothing else.

Atkins: Trade with Cleveland for Donaldson provided ‘the best return’

The Blue Jays parted ways with former MVP Josh Donaldson in a deal that sent him to Cleveland and on Saturday, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins explained the deal from Toronto’s perspective after a question from Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons.

Despite elite production for the majority of his four seasons with the Blue Jays, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro elected not to trade the three-time All-Star that winter citing a desire to remain competitive but had little reason to hang onto him once the team fell out of contention and chances of reaching an extension became slim to none.

Their hands might have been tied, but it was still a disappointing split given all Donaldson accomplished in his time as a Jay.

New leadership

Toronto finished the 2018 season at 73-89 and placed fourth in the AL East for the second year in a row. Change had been the theme for the organization lately and it kept coming.

In the final days of the 2018 season, the Jays announced John Gibbons would not be back as manager, extinguishing one of the final flames from the playoff runs a couple seasons before.

If there was ever a guy who deserved a shot as big league manager, it was Charlie Montoyo. He appeared in over 1,000 minor league games as a player and spent over two decades in the Tampa Bay Rays organization at pretty much every level imaginable. Except as a Major League manager. So off he went to Toronto.

Phillips: Montoyo is all about player development

TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips was on OverDrive on TSN 1050 and says that new Jays manager Charlie Montoyo has 18 years of management in the minor levels, and is a player development type of manager.

Except as Major League manager. So off he went to Toronto.

“Charlie is passionate about the game, with a superior ability to connect and relate, and we are confident he will have an overwhelmingly positive influence on Blue Jays players and staff,” Atkins said at the time of Montoyo’s hiring.

The future arrives

Anticipation of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette had been building for years by the time spring training 2019 rolled around. Neither were expected to break camp and head north but it was a matter of when, not if, they’d be joining the big club that season.

Miraculously – or not – Vladdy got his call after spending just enough time in Buffalo to gain an extra year of team control. Regarded as the consensus top prospect in baseball and probably the most anticipated prospect in Jays history, Guerrero made his debut on April 26 against the Oakland Athletics in from of nearly 30,000 fans at Rogers Centre.

Guerrero picked up his first hit on a double in the ninth inning and came around to score the winning run on a walk-off homer by Brandon Drury.

“Just the way I dreamed it,” Guerrero told reporters after the game.

When the dust settled, Vlad Jr. finished his rookie season with 15 homers and a batting average of .272. He had his moments, but he didn’t set the world on fire like many were expecting.

But Bichette did.

On July 29, Bichette got his call and picked up a hit in his first Major League at-bat. Then he kept on hitting.

On Aug. 8, Bichette set an MLB record by doubling in his ninth consecutive game and also upped his hitting streak to 11 games to start his career.

“We’re watching history, that’s what he’s doing,” Montoyo told reporters.

MLB: Yankees 12, Blue Jays 6

Bo Bichette continued to break records as he extended his hitting streak to 11-games with his first homer at home and then became the first player in MLB history with a double in nine consecutive games, but it wasn’t enough as Gio Urshela hit pair of two-run home runs to help lead the Yankees past the Jays.

The injury bug would bite the young shortstop later on in the season but he still finished his rookie campaign with an absurd .311/.358/.571 slash line in 46 games.

With Bichette and Guerrero up and contributing, light was starting to emerge at the end of the tunnel for the Jays.

Reloading in the rotation

Despite the arrival of Guerrero, Bichette and Cavan Biggio, the Jays still struggled through the 2019 season and were once again sellers as the trade deadline approached.

Marcus Stroman had been steady in starting-fives often filled with question marks over the years but having been burned a year earlier on the Donaldson deal, Toronto seemed to want to cash in before it was too late. On July 28, off Stroman went to the New York Mets for pitching prospects Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson. The next big name to go was the oft-injured Aaron Sanchez, who went to Houston in exchange for Derek Fisher.

As the Jays hobbled to yet another disappointing season with gaping holes in the rotation, Atkins and Shapiro did something they hadn’t done much of during their time in Toronto so far. They spent.

Toronto made its biggest free agent splash in years, signing former Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal.

“We’ve got an ace,” Montoyo said of the move.

He wasn’t kidding. Ryu won the National League ERA crown at 2.32 and finished second in Cy Young voting in 2019.

Ryu excited to work with Blue Jays’ young core

Hyun-jin Ryu says he’s really excited to be a part of the Blue Jays this season and has already felt very welcomed. He’s looking forward to playing with such a young core and says he’s been able to raise his pitch count with his off-season work.

It was a dramatic pivot from their free agent signings in the past and signified the Jays felt they were ready to start contending. Maybe not immediately, but it was on the horizon.

Then, everything changed.

The landscape shifts

COVID-19 hit the sports world hard in mid-March and threw everything into flux.

Baseball especially.

Weeks of uncertainty turned into months. By all accounts, baseball came this close to not having a season after the league and players’ union struggled to come to an agreement on finances. When 2020 finally got the green light, the two sides agreed to an expanded postseason structure that would see 16 teams play October baseball as opposed to 10.

That changed everything for Toronto. Three extra playoff spots in the American League suddenly meant the Jays weren’t just hoping to contend – they were expected to.

But before they went searching for a playoff spot, they needed to find a home. COVID-19 made international travel difficult and the Canada-U.S. border was no different.

The Blue Jays were allowed to hold summer camp at Rogers Centre but playing regular season games there was a different story. If the Jays were to play at home, they’d need special approval from the Canadian federal government to circumvent the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering the country. On July 18, six days to Opening Day, they were denied.

Now what?

Dunedin was a logical backup option, but a surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida and ballpark without a roof in the mid-day summer heat made that a challenge. Big league venues like Pittsburgh and Baltimore were possibilities until that was nixed by local health authorities.

Atkins says changes to Sahlen Field are ‘jaw dropping’

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins says his jaw dropped when he first saw the updates that were made to Sahlen Field and says tonight they’ll get an idea of whether the additional lighting they’ve brought in will be enough. He also provides an update on Ken Giles and why he might start throwing sooner than later.

That left Triple-A Sahlen Field, originally the planned alternate training site facility, as one of the only viable options remaining. Just hours before their first game of the season in Tampa Bay, a decision was made. The Jays would play their 2020 home games in Buffalo.

Try explaining that one at the start of the year.

A giant step forward

The Jays got off to a slow start in 2020 and things looked grimmer by the day as the injuries mounted. Things got worse when Toronto dropped two games on Aug. 17 to fall four games below .500 at 7-11. With the season hanging in the balance the following day in Baltimore, Ryu delivered the kind of performance the Jays paid $80 million for, allowing just one run over six innings in an eventual 7-2 win. From there, the Bluebirds took flight.

That kicked off a six-game winning streak and helped get to them one game over .500 as of Aug. 26, well within the playoff picture. The front office took notice.

The next day, the Blue Jays acquired proven starter Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for a player to be named later. And that was only the beginning.

On Aug. 31, the Jays were as active on trade deadline day as they’d been in years, picking up veterans Robbie Ray, Jonathan Villar and Ross Stripling in three separate trades.

“Obviously, had things in the win-loss record gone differently, we may not have added as much. Maybe there would have been other opportunities, but we felt very good coming into spring training, as you saw in our off-season acquisitions. We wanted to be in this position,” Atkins told reporters.

With a winning record and a re-loaded roster, there was really only one thing left keeping the Jays from returning to the playoffs – the New York Yankees.

The 2020 MLB season operated under circumstances far from normal and scheduling was no different. Toronto didn’t have a game against the Yankees for the first month-plus of the season, but once early September hit, they were set to play them 10 times in fewer than 20 days.

The Jays went just 24-33 against the Yankees the last three seasons and were outscored by a total of 80 runs. If struggles continued in 2020, it could cost the Blue Jays a playoff spot.

Whether it was catching the injury-plagued Yankees at the right time or Toronto simply being a better team than in years past – or both – the Jays held their own. They went 5-5 against New York and clinched their seventh postseason appearance in franchise history with a 4-1 victory over those Yankees.

How did Jays exceed expectations to make playoffs?

Before the season, many projected Toronto to have a sub-500 season and well out of the post-season picture. How were the Jays able to exceed expectations and clinch a spot? TSN Blue Jays reporter Scott Mitchell has more.

“We keep believing in ourselves,” Montoyo said. “It’s awesome. I’m so proud of this group. I’m the happiest guy right now.”

The Jays will take on the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays in a best-of-three wild card round series beginning Tuesday evening. While they did play Tampa Bay relatively even during the season, facing the trio of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton backed by one of baseball’s best bullpens isn’t an easy task.

But neither is anything in 2020, and yet here they are.

Jays fans have had to wait four years for their team to return to the playoffs. Regardless of how things go this season, they shouldn’t have to wait near as long next time.

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Blue Jays continue to buck baseball tradition, start Shoemaker in Game 1 – CityNews Toronto

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Little of what the Toronto Blue Jays did with their pitching staff this season was conventional.

The club asked starters to cover fewer than half of its innings, seldom letting a pitcher not named Hyun Jin Ryu face a lineup a third time. One-time starters like Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Ryan Borucki and Shun Yamaguchi piggy-backed off current starters, chewing innings in the middle of games with elevated stuff that played up in shorter stints. After Ken Giles was lost to injury, manager Charlie Montoyo went without a defined closer, using his best relievers in the highest leverage spots regardless of which inning those spots occurred in.

It was anything but traditional. And yet, in the end, it helped the club qualify for the postseason with a 32-28 record a year after losing 95 times. So why would you expect the Blue Jays to follow the pack now?

“Putting our ace in the middle makes sense to us for several reasons”

Montoyo confirmed Monday that they won’t, announcing Matt Shoemaker will start Game 1 of this week’s wild card series with the Tampa Bay Rays, followed by Ryu in Game 2 and Taijuan Walker if there’s a Game 3.

“In a three game series, the goal is to win two of them. So, putting our ace in the middle makes sense to us for several reasons,” Montoyo said. “We said we were going to be creative from the beginning – that’s how we got here, being creative. And to beat one of the best teams in baseball, we’re going to have to be creative.”

All three of Toronto’s starters were rested enough to pitch in Game 1, and baseball orthodoxy states that a club ought to start its best pitcher in the first game of a postseason series. That’s unquestionably Ryu, who pitched to a 2.69 ERA over a dozen starts this season, with sparkling peripherals of 9.7 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9.

But there isn’t much orthodox in playing a three-game, no-days-off, winner-take-all series in the other team’s ballpark. And there isn’t much regard for tradition among Toronto’s decision-makers. The combination of this pitching staff, this series and this front office invited an innovative approach. If you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying attention.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a risk. In the wild card era, teams that win the first game of a postseason series have a 126-49 record. That’s a .720 winning percentage. And you’d expect the odds to be even steeper in a three-game series. Winning the first game is extremely important.

But the Blue Jays are betting that Shoemaker and the club’s bullpen can be good enough to prevail against the Rays on Tuesday, setting up Ryu to start what will be an elimination game either way in Game 2. Assuming he can get deep into his start — Ryu has completed six or more innings in 29 of his past 41 starts — the club’s Game 1 relievers ought to be rested enough to come back for a potential Game 3. And if things turned particularly dire, Montoyo probably wouldn’t hesitate to use them again in Game 2. There are multiple days off between the wild card round and the next. It’s all hands on deck.

And Ryu pitching on five days rest is nothing new. It’s actually his norm. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Ryu have made 40 of his 80 starts on five days’ rest and has pitched only 21 times on four days. That’s spanning two organizations. Clearly there’s a reason for it, whether it’s Ryu’s personal preference or two separate training staffs relying on objective measures of fatigue and recovery telling them that’s what’s best.

There’s also a slight statistical case for it. This season, Ryu has pitched to a 2.29 ERA in the seven starts he made on five days’ rest, versus a 2.74 mark in his four outings on four days. The sample is certainly small, but you can’t fault the Blue Jays for going with what has worked.

And if there was ever a time to do it, it’s with Ryu coming off his two longest outings of the season. He threw 99 pitches over six innings on Sept. 19 vs. the Philadelphia Phillies and 100 over seven in Toronto’s postseason-clinching victory against the New York Yankees on Thursday.

“When you look at their starters, they all got the extra days off because they clinched before we did,” Montoyo said of the Rays. “So, we’re also giving our ace an extra day off. We’re actually doing the same thing they’re doing. Except our ace is pitching in the second game. And, actually, they’ve got four aces over there.”

Plus, Shoemaker matches up well with the Rays — certainly better than Walker. For his career, Shoemaker has been equally effective against both sides of the platoon, holding right-handers to a .716 OPS and lefties to a .712 OPS. Walker, meanwhile, has been susceptible to lefties so far this season, allowing an .869 OPS against them — versus a .515 OPS when facing right-handers.

“The last time he pitched, he was really sharp”

Walker’s career-long splits are more even, but still favour left-handers, of which the Rays have several. Of course, Tampa has dangerous hitters from either side of the plate, making them difficult to match up with regardless. But Shoemaker’s career numbers — which is the tip of the iceberg of data clubs rely upon, it must be said — paint a more promising picture for success.

And, for whatever it’s worth, Shoemaker has been effective in three starts against the Rays this season, holding them to six runs on 10 hits with 17 strikeouts and four walks over 15 innings. The Rays hit .192/.250/.404 against Shoemaker in those games.

“We feel good going with Shoemaker in this game,” Montoyo said. “The last time he pitched, he was really sharp. He was throwing 94, 95. And he’s rested now. So, I really feel good about him taking the mound. He’s been one of our best pitchers all year.”

Still, to say Game 1 is Shoemaker’s game is a misnomer. The 34-year-old came off the injured list only a week ago after missing a month due to a lat strain. He has made only one start since — a three-inning, 54-pitch outing against the Yankees. He threw a bullpen on Saturday instead of appearing in another game, and while it’s fair to expect him to be somewhat more stretched out than he was against New York, he won’t be built up to a full starter’s workload.

Does that mean 60 pitches? Maybe 65? We’ll see. But if Shoemaker is still pitching by the fourth or fifth inning, things will have gone extremely well. More likely, he’ll air it out for two or three max-effort frames before turning the game over to an arm out of Toronto’s bullpen.

An obvious candidate for that assignment is Robbie Ray. The big-armed southpaw would match up well with the many left-handed hitters the Rays are likely to stack in their lineup against Shoemaker.

Ray has struck out nearly a third of the lefties he has faced in his career, holding them to a .223/.280/.370 slash line. His command is an obvious concern, but even as he has struggled to find the zone consistently this season, Ray has remained extremely effective against left-handed hitting.

Think about it this way: Shoemaker isn’t starting the game, he’s just … beginning it. If he gets through three innings allowing only a run — as he did last week against the Yankees — he’ll have done his job. Then it’ll be Ray’s turn to throw his hardest, nastiest stuff for two innings or more before passing the baton.

Presumably, the Blue Jays hope that will force Rays manager Kevin Cash to dip into his bench early for pinch-hitters, trying to gain the platoon advantage against Ray once he takes over. If Cash does, he’ll have sacrificed flexibility later in the game, which will allow Montoyo to deploy his bullpen arms with more certainty. If Cash doesn’t, he’ll be allowing Ray to pitch in the best possible position for him to succeed.

Once Ray has done his job, the Blue Jays can play matchups to the finish line. See some dangerous right-handed bats — like Yandy Diaz, Willy Adames, or Randy Arozarena — due up? Here’s Nate Pearson throwing 101 mph or Rafael Dolis spinning splitters that fall right off the table. Staring down a run of lefties — like Brandon Lowe, Ji-Man Choi or Yoshi Tsutsugo — next inning? Enter Ryan Borucki, ready to pound fastballs inside and work cutters away.

At least that’s the design. The best-laid plans of research and development departments often go awry. But it’s a baseball game. Anything can happen. You enter with a strategy, hope it goes well and adapt on the fly if it doesn’t. Whatever the results, the Blue Jays can live with their process. And no one should have expected them to do anything else.

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Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn's heartbreaking interview is hard to watch: 'It was a good run' – USA TODAY

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Jimmy Hascup
 
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Should Stanley Cup winner get an asterisk? Former goalie weighs in

SportsPulse: Mackenzie Salmons sits down with former NHL goalie and NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes to discuss the level of play during the Stanley Cup Finals= and whether or not the winner should have an asterisk in the record books.

NHL players entered the playoff bubbles sans fans in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, on July 26, and on Monday night, the journey that was spent for the majority without friends and family nearby ended with the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup.

For the Western Conference champion Dallas Stars, who finished third in the Central Division, it was a surprising run that came up just short, losing the Cup in six games. And for their captain, the emotions following defeat were too raw to put into words.

Here’s how the post-game news conference via Zoom went for Jamie Benn:

“What’s the feeling like for you guys right now?” a reporter asked Benn, 31. 

“It sucks. Uh … you go through a lot with that group and …” Benn said as he looked around.

“Jamie, I know it’s tough right now, but what will you remember about this group of guys?” the next reporter asked.

Benn didn’t respond, sitting still as he stared down.

“Hey, Jamie, are you able to even think about the run you guys had, or is this too much for you right now at this moment?” a different reported asked.

Benn sat quiet for several seconds. “It was a good run. Umm … it’s tough. You’re two games away from a Stanley Cup, so …” Benn said, clearly struck with emotion.

WHAT’S NEXT: Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars had great playoff runs; what awaits this offseason?

The NHL reported no positive coronavirus tests for nine weeks in a row since the teams entered the bubbles — a total of 33,174 tests. But that didn’t come without sacrifice as some family members — only those from Canada — could join players at the start of the conference finals. That means a lot of time spent away from family and friends for the majority of players.

Benn, who was drafted by the Stars in 2007 and now their second-highest paid player,  has been used to criticism in recent years. He was blasted along with teammate Tyler Seguin by Stars president Jim Lites in a profanity-filled tirade in December 2018 for not “getting it done.”

Since Benn entered the league in 2009, Dallas has reached the playoffs four times, with this one being the first time it got past the second round.

Benn had 39 points in 69 regular-season games, but was dominant in the playoffs with eight goals and 19 points in 27 games.

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