Toronto Blue Jays start AL wild-card series today. What you need to know

The Toronto Blue Jays are hosting their first playoff game in the city since 2016. Lindsay Dunn has a preview of the wild card series against the Seattle Mariners.

By Lucas Casaletto

For the first time since 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays will host an MLB playoff game at Rogers Centre, but a lot has changed since then.

Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, and others are gone. A new era has been ushered in, led by a much younger collection of players, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Alejandro Kirk, and Alek Manoah.

Speaking of Encarnacion, the team seemed to drop a not-so-subtle hint on Twitter that the former Jays slugger may or not be in the building on Friday to throw out the first pitch. Encarnacion hit the game-winning walk-off home run in a wild card game against the Baltimore Orioles to kick of the team’s 2016 playoff run.

This year’s version of the Blue Jays finished the season with 92 wins — their most since 2015 when Toronto won the AL East division.

One key reason for the club’s strong finish was a managerial change that was made mid-season when Charlie Montoyo was fired and replaced by John Schneider. The Blue Jays were on a dreadful skid with one win in 11 games and were coming off being swept in four games by the Seattle Mariners.

Enter Schneider, who helped guide the club to a 46-28 record down the stretch — matching the amount of wins Montoyo accrued during his time as manager this year.

As a result, Toronto secured the top spot in the AL wild card and will face the Mariners in a best-of-three series, with all three games played at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays finished the regular season with 47 wins at home — the fourth-highest in the AL.

Toronto’s AL wild-card roster will be announced pre-game. It remains unclear if the currently injured Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Santiago Espinal will be healthy enough to play. Kevin Gausman, who left his final regular season start with a finger ailment, is expected to be fine.

The Mariners also enter the series a little banged up, with outfielders Jesse Winker and Sam Haggerty both on the injured list.

Here’s what to know heading into Friday.

Game 1 starters: Alek Manoah (TOR) vs. Luis Castillo (SEA)

Game 1 start time: 4:07 p.m. ET

Mariners season record: 90-72

Head-to-head regular season record: 5 wins (SEA), 2 wins (TOR)

Where to watch/listen: Sportsnet and Sportsnet 590, the FAN

Biggest question: Will Toronto’s bullpen be good enough?

Throughout the season, much was made about Toronto’s lack of an upgrade at the back end of its bullpen. The front office acquired veteran Anthony Bass from Miami, and he’s since helped stabilize the relievers’ group, but Toronto lacks firepower.

Canadian Jordan Romano finished third in the AL with 36 saves, while Yimi Garcia and Adam Cimber were reliable for the most part.

Heading into the series, Seattle has an advantage in this department, as Mariners relievers finished sixth in baseball with a combined 3.33 ERA and struck out 9.65 batters per nine innings. Toronto’s bullpen was more middle-of-the-pack (3.77 ERA and 8.92 K/9).

If Toronto hitters can score runs early and often against Mariners starters, this won’t matter. But if the games are close, and Seattle goes to its bullpen with a late lead or in a tie game, it will pose a challenge for the Blue Jays.

Can Alek Manoah carry over regular season success?

Manoah’s meteoric rise from a 2019 first-round draft pick to a major-league ace has happened quickly.

The towering, 6-foot-6 and 285-pound Manoah had a terrific season with 16 wins, a 2.24 ERA, and 180 strikeouts across just 196 2/3 innings, a notable increase to the 111 innings pitched in his rookie season.

The 24-year-old has proven time and time again that he can be relied upon in big situations, so it will be fascinating to see how he handles Friday’s start. Manoah seems more than ready for his first big league postseason appearance.

“My high school coach told me pressure is for my tires,” Manoah told Sportsnet’s Ben Wagner on Thursday.

The calm and composed Manoah will go into Friday’s start on six days of rest, having last pitched on September 30.

Seattle hopes young superstar can carry them

The Mariners have a few talented hitters, no more electric and showstopping than 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez.

Rodriguez led Seattle with 6.0 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement) and was second on the team with 28 home runs. He ranked first in OPS+ (147) and stolen bases (25). Did I mention he’s only 21?

The rookie will get his first taste of what the playoffs are like at Rogers Centre on Friday, and if he can carry over what was accomplished this regular season, it will go a long way in establishing how Seattle fares in this series.

Third baseman Eugenio Suarez is another name to watch. Suarez, 31, was revitalized playing in Seattle after being acquired in a trade from Cincinnati, finishing with a team-leading 31 home runs and 87 RBIs.

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