The Blue Jays’ rotation is playoff-worthy, but they have to reach the postseason first

BALTIMORE — With more than a month of games still to play, Chris Bassitt isn’t ready to make this definitive declaration, but it’s something that’s crossed his mind. This Blue Jays pitching staff might be the best he’s ever been a part of during his nine years playing in the major leagues.

“I’ve been blessed to be on some really good pitching staffs, and I don’t want to say this yet, but we have the ability to be the best one I’ve ever been on without a doubt,” the 34-year-old right-hander said at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards.

While it remains to be seen if they indeed top Bassitt’s all-time list, Toronto’s pitching staff has been the best in the majors this season. Entering play on Wednesday, the Blue Jays led MLB with a 3.64 ERA. Since the All-Star break, their collective ERA is 3.11. And, it’s both the rotation and bullpen excelling at once. The starters have a 3.21 ERA in the second half, which ranks second in the majors. The bullpen has a 2.96 ERA, which ranks third.

For the past few seasons, Toronto’s team M.O. had been overwhelming teams with its powerhouse offence that could outscore just about anybody on any day — between 2021 and 2022, no team had a higher OPS than the Blue Jays — but as their run production has strangely underperformed this season, it’s instead been their pitching that’s been their clear strength.

“It’s gotten us to where we are, for sure,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “The fact that they’ve been consistent, I think, they’re at the point now where they’re feeding off of one another a little bit, starters and relievers, and it’s allowed us to play and win in close games.”

All of a sudden, the Blue Jays have a five-man rotation as deep and matchup-proof as any in the majors and a shutdown bullpen that can strike fear in opposing lineups. It’s a pitching staff tailor-made for the postseason — but first the Blue Jays have to get there. That path didn’t get any easier with Wednesday’s 7-0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in which the pitching line looked far worse because of one uncharacteristically rough five-run eighth inning from reliever Trevor Richards, who has otherwise been one of Toronto’s many reliable arms.

“We got to get to the playoffs,” Bassitt said. “But when we get to the playoffs, there’s not a team that’s going to want to face our pitching because we can attack you in so many different ways.”

Toronto’s pitching staff has been filled with great stories. Kevin Gausman, who allowed just two runs on five hits with a walk and eight strikeouts over six innings against the Orioles Wednesday, remains a steady ace while Bassitt has been the durable mid-rotation arm they sought in the offseason. Both José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi have authored impressive bounce-back seasons after they both struggled in their first full seasons with the Blue Jays a year ago. And now, Hyun Jin Ryu has emerged from a year-plus Tommy John recovery to be the command artist he used to be.

Really, the only underperformer — and a significant one at that — has been Alek Manoah, who lost his spot in the rotation after pitching to a 5.87 ERA and badly struggling with command. But that the Blue Jays have been able to not miss a beat as their Opening Day starter fell out of the five-man rotation is a testament to the performances of everyone else, who’ve stepped up.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, Tim Mayza has a 1.03 ERA, better than all MLB relievers not named Josh Hader. Jordan Romano continues to be one of the most reliable closers in the game, while Erik Swanson and Jordan Hicks are closer-calibre set-up men. The team has such depth that Jay Jackson, who has an ERA under 2.00 this season, was optioned because they needed a roster spot. And, oh by the way, Chad Green is perhaps only two rehab outings away from joining the club, too.

Bassitt said the pitching staff operates as though they’re passing the baton to one another. Their collective success hinges on the fact that no one pitcher feels as though it’s all weighing on his shoulders.

“There’s no added pressure for you to do more than what you’re capable of,” he said. “We’re not asking anyone to do something heroic. We’re just saying just go be yourself and we’re going to have a really good chance to win.”

The starters, for instance, know their job is to go out there and put up a quality start. From there, the bullpen can take over and Schneider has a stable full of arms that he can mix and match depending on the situation.

“We always joked in Oakland, when we had a bullpen that I think was by far the best in the big leagues, that it was a race to the seventh inning and if we were winning at that time, the game is over. I think we have the same ability here,” Bassitt said. “It’s just you don’t have a lot of pressure on you as a starter to go super deep into a game, so I think you can attack lineups differently. But at the same time the catch-22 of that is you want to go deep into games to give the bullpen a rest.”

Should the Blue Jays advance to the postseason, and for now they still remain a game back of the Seattle Mariners for the third wild-card spot after both teams lost Wednesday, Gausman would in all likelihood be in line to start Game 1 of a wild-card series, but after that, it would be a fair discussion that the club could go to any of Berríos, Kikuchi or Bassitt, depending on the matchup and whether that team hits righties or lefties significantly worse or better.

Blue Jays relievers, meanwhile, match up well against anyone. They employ a variety of looks and styles in their bullpen, throwing changeups, sinkers and splitters at opposing lineups. But while in years past they were more of a pitch-to-contact-heavy group, this year, they’re striking batters out at a high clip. Their 26.1 strikeout percentage ranks fifth in the majors, while their 12.7 swinging strike percentage ranks fourth. It’s a recipe that works in the postseason, especially, when games are generally tighter.

“You feel good about bringing guys in in whatever spot,” Schneider said.

Of course, the Blue Jays will need to score and give their pitchers a lead to work with if they get to the postseason, which is something they’ve struggled to do with enough consistency this season, but especially and inexplicably so when Gausman is on the mound. The right-hander has MLB’s lowest run support average this season at 3.23 runs per game.

That trend continued on Wednesday, when Toronto was shut out by the Orioles after starter Dean Kremer did a good job of mixing all his pitches, Schneider said. It was the eighth time the Blue Jays have been shut out this season, all of which have come since June 19. The pitching has been able to keep the Blue Jays in most games — the eighth inning of this one excluded — but the team is still waiting for that offensive outbreak and for the pitching and hitting to start clicking with regularity.

“We’re just waiting for that big stretch. We’ve kind of been waiting for that all year,” said Gausman. “And is it going to happen? I don’t know. I hope it does. I hope it starts tomorrow. But we can’t keep sitting back and waiting on that. We got to go now and we need a little bit more sense of urgency.”

The way the Blue Jays have pitched this year, Bassitt said, he believes “we have an opportunity to be something really special.”

But it’ll take an entire team effort to guarantee they get that chance.

(Photo of Gausman: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

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