First Pitch: Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s baseball team, make long-awaited journey home

The Toronto Blue Jays last played a true home game at Rogers Centre on Sept. 29, 2019. Come July 30, they will once again make the journey up North for a home series against the Kansas City Royals.

Rogers Centre may look the same, but so much has changed, and not just with the team on the field. Free agent acquisitions like Hyun Jin Ryu, George Springer and Marcus Semien haven’t played there. Vlad Jr. was just a baby in baseball terms in 2019. Now, he’s an MVP candidate and potential triple crown threat.

There is no transition for the following sobering fact: Over 26,500 individuals have succumbed to COVID-19 in Canada. That number is not lost on Canadians, who hope that a return to some level of sports normalcy can help uplift a community that — like countries all around the world — desperately needs it.

Blue Jays games will look a little different at the start, and not just due to the names on the field. That’ll take some getting used to, but so will a reduced capacity of fans. Rogers Centre was typically one of the loudest stadiums in the sport at its peak, but only 15,000 fans will be allowed in, at least to start, per basic COVID-19 safety measures. It’s the right and appropriate thing to do.

Officially, the Jays received a National Interest Exemption to return to Rogers Centre from the Canadian Government. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet explains:

“It is not dissimilar from the plan used by the Montreal Canadiens during their NHL Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, involving multiple border crossings. Other exemptions were recently issued for the Olympic basketball qualifying tournament staged in Victoria and the ongoing Calgary Stampede.”

The Blue Jays have played home games across the United States, including Dunedin, Flor. and Buffalo, New York. While they’ve surely made some fans in those communities, it is not the same as suiting up as Canada’s baseball team. For those of us in the States, it is not a concept we can quite wrap our heads around.

That’s what makes Toronto’s record during that time period, 80-72, a little more impressive than meets the eye. The Blue Jays have gone just 22-22 at home this season.

Some of that may be due to subpar play from a team still learning how to win at a consistent clip, but not playing in their traditional home ballpark has to be considered a factor. Expanded postseason or not, the Jays made the playoffs in 2020, and are still within striking distance of doing the same this year.

A few savvy trade deadline moves, and a solid homestand starting on July 30, and the Blue Jays ought to be right where they need to be in the American League Wild Card race. Jays Journal’s Chris Henderson said just as much in his own column about the Blue Jays returning home to Rogers Centre.

“As far as ownership is concerned, what could be a better kickstart to their return to Canada than bringing a World Series contender back to the Rogers Centre? Blue Jays fans are going to be excited to get their team back anyway, but the demand for tickets and merchandise is going to sky-rocket. After 17 months of dealing with a very difficult worldwide pandemic you could argue that we need this. As a reward for the fanbase, and for the team that has given us plenty of reasons to stay excited over the last year and a half, I’m all for it.”

Toronto Blue Jays: What should fans expect in return to Rogers Centre?

The Blue Jays are headed back to Toronto, and for fans that means a return to normalcy. For that perspective, we turned to Jays’ Journal’s own Tyson Shushkewich.

1. The Blue Jays haven’t played a home game in Toronto since 2019. How has that impacted the growth of this team — if at all — and what does returning to being ‘Canada’s team’ really mean to the Blue Jays?

Tyson Shushkewich: “Considering some of the marquee players like Hyun Jin Ryu, Marcus Semien, and George Springer have never played in Toronto since signing/joining the team, it will be a huge moment not just for the fans but also for the players. The Blue Jays returning ‘home’ is a huge step forward because in both Dunedin and Buffalo, sometimes the opposing fans outnumbered the Jays fans and you just didn’t have the momentum/energy in your corner. By coming home to the Rogers Centre, which could very easily sell out every night moving forward, the atmosphere will be a lot different but in a good way.”

2. It’s tough not to get romantic about baseball, and in this case about the Jays long-awaited return to Rogers’ Centre. What sort of advantage does this give the Jays down the stretch? Is there now added pressure to perform?

TS: “By playing in front of more home fans, the energy behind the players when they step up to the plate or onto the mound will be something they haven’t experienced in quite some time. One could argue that there is added pressure but not so much from returning home/the fans but more towards the team trying to earn a spot in the playoffs after the free-agent signings and the way Guerrero Jr. and the bats are playing. You have to remember that Jays fans have not seen their team at home in quite some time, so they may be more forgiving as long as they stay competitive. Failure to add at the deadline or falling from the Wild Card spot will be a tough pill to swallow.”

3. The Blue Jays return home with a true face of the franchise in Vladdy, and a rapidly-emerging young core. What are reasonable expectations for the rest of the season?

TS: “Playoffs or bust. You really only have one season of Semien and Robbie Ray as neither are guaranteed for next season and right now, the team is a few pieces away from making the playoffs. The bats are playing well and Guerrero Jr. is boasting an MVP-worthy season, and if the team does not make the playoffs, it will most surely fit into the ‘that wasn’t good enough’ level.”

4. Does the Blue Jays return to Toronto put added pressure on management to add at the trade deadline? If so, who should they target?

TS: “The initial pressure to add at the deadline stems more from the close losses and the way that the bullpen has been imploding over the past month with inconsistent performances from multiple arms…

Adding a bonafide reliever or two would be a great starting point, with the likes of Richard Rodriguez (Pirates), Ian Kennedy (Rangers), and Craig Kimbrel (Cubs) all being good options. The ask will most likely be the highest with Kimbrel given the pedigree and season he is having…

Grabbing a starting pitcher would also help the club, as Steven Matz has difficulty the further along in the game he pitches and Ross Stripling recently got touched up in Boston, hopefully a one-off….Max Scherzer would be the best option of the group but the most difficult with his 10-5 rights while Jose Berrios would be the better depth option given his additional years of control but would cost more prospect capital to get any deal done.”

Blue Jays rumors: Where should Toronto look for help at the trade deadline?

Understandably, Blue Jays fans are hungry for postseason baseball given the excitement around their impending return to Toronto. General manager Ross Atkins has to measure the reward of giving into that excitement vs the risk of mortgaging what looks to be a very strong club in the near future.

As Shushkewich mentions, the Jays have significant holes in their rotation and bullpen. Unfortunately, the number of starters on the market has dwindled of late. Are the Twins going to make Jose Berrios available, or not? Is Kyle Gibson worth a couple of top-10 prospects despite his history as a back-end starter? Will the Nationals even field calls on Max Scherzer? These questions need to be answered before the Blue Jays can make any sort of realistic offer to upgrade their rotation.

A bullpen maneuver feels much more likely, and Toronto also needs that rather desperately. Building a strong back-end of the bullpen helps the starting rotation in the long run, as well, limiting innings down the stretch and — the Blue Jays hope — in the postseason.

With Nelson Cruz traded to the Rays, the Blue Jays aren’t necessarily linked to any huge bats at the moment, though that could change in the week ahead.

Trade deadline buyers or not, the Blue Jays future is bright. Finally, after a long and strenuous journey, that future can take place in Toronto.

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