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Some perspective from 1985

Even the best teams have rough stretches

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It’s been a tough month of May for the Blue Jays. Since blowing the series finale against Seattle to close out the month of April and end a six game winning streak, they’re 11-16. But even that belies a darker undercurrent. Outside of the AL East, they’ve actually done quite well, posting a 9-3 record.

Alas, basic math dictates the residual is a putrid 2-13 within the division over four series. They’re still above .500 overall and well within the hunt (indeed, would lead either Central division despite being in the cellar of theirs), so it isn’t fatal. But it’s certainly not doing them any favours when it comes to the pecking order for wild card spots, and has a lot of people pretty sour on the outlook. What good is to beat up on weaklings only to always fall short against the real competition?

But the 162 game baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. The Jays have been maddeningly inconsistent, but on the whole they’ve been more good than bad, at least solid overall. Things should even out over time, the results against the AL East should come, and it actually strikes me there’s a very interesting historical parallel to what’s happened in 2012. After all, it is often said that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.

1985 remains the highwater mark for Blue Jays campaigns with a 99-62 record in which they fell just shy of the century mark. Following consecutive 89 win seasons and a (distant) second place finish to the World Series champion Detroit Tigers, expectations were sky high after the Jays went out and brought in Bill Caudill and Gary Lavelle to shore up what was considered the Achilles Hell holding them back in the bullpen.

Those Jays were slow out of the gates, struggling mightily to produce offensively against a slew of quality lefties starters, and suffering a couple of dreaded bullpen blowups when they did despite the new personnel. Losing the first two of a series to Kansas City at home in late-April dropped the Jays to 7-7.

They rebounded to stave off the sweep before hitting the road to the West Coast, and a heavy dose of the weaker AL West proved exactly the spark they needed in reeling off a seven game winning streak. My mid-May they were neck-in-neck with the Orioles for first place, and an eight game winning streak at the end of the month vaulted them into the catbird’s seat.

After starting 7-7, they went 29-7 to sit 36-14 as dawn rose on June 6th, five games ahead of the pace. The caveat though was the very soft schedule: from April 22nd to June 5th, they exclusively played the West with the exception of home-and-home series with basement dwelling-Cleveland.

But the real test was about to start with 27 games in 28 days in the gauntlet of the division, starting with the Tigers coming to Exhibition Stadium for a highly anticipated four game set, but then also the Yankees, Red Sox and Brewers.

Just as in 2023 the Jays took two of three from white-hot Tampa to start divisional play, in 1985 it couldn’t have started better. Jimmy Key took a no-hitter into the 9th, before pitching 10 shutout innings in the first game before Buck Martinez (in after Ernie Whitt was pinch =-run for earlier) walked off the first game with a two run home run in the 11th inning. The second game saw them jump ahead early, build a 9-0 lead behind six shutout innings from Dave Stieb and coast to an easy win.

With a guaranteed split in hand, the prospect for the last two was most favourable. With Milt Wilcox’s shoulder ailing, the Tigers were forced to turn to unheralded rookie Randy O’Neal and reliever Doug Bair to start the last two games. They division lead was up to 6.5 games, and 8.5 on Detroit, still considered the biggest threat.

But the Jays bats disappeared, while Jim Clancy and Luis Leal were shelled in 10-1 and 8-3 setbacks (two of those runs on wild pitches). The next night in New York, they were once again stifled by a journeyman, this time Bob Shirley in a 4-2 loss. Despite being stifled by another struggling pitcher in Ed Whitson, the Jays did manage to salavage the series with back-to-back extra inning wins.

Then it was on to Fenway for a four game set, and things really went off the rails. The bullpen failed to hold a 6-3 lead in the 7th inthe first game, and then Oil Can Boyd shut them down in the second. Not able to stop the Red Sox late, they lost the third 7-5 and then the bullpen coughed up another 6-3 lead with four runs in the 8th of the finale for the four game sweep.

On to Milwaukee, where they dropped another couple close games. Since taking the first two from the Tigers, they were now 2-9 against the core of the AL East, largely in close games. Sound familiar? The 2023 Jays just happened to wrap up a 2-9 run through the AL East. Four game sweep at Fenway? Check.

From that point, the 1985 Jays righted the ship. They took the last from Milwaukee, then three of four at home from Boston and then two of three from the Brewers before going into Detroit to do the same. The one setback was dropping two of three to the Yankees. That left them 46-30 and 2.5 game lead. They were even better the rest of the summer, 52-27 through the end of September to reach 98-57 at their apex.

This is not to suggest that the 2023 Blue Jays will end up anywhere as good as the 1985 Jays of course. But even the best teams have lots of ups and downs over 162 games, and that can be shoehorned into easy narratives. In the middle of June 1985, it would have been tempting to see the 1985 team as a paper tiger who could easily handle weaker teams, but were still short of the traditional powers in AL East.

So, May has been a big setback in the division. But on the whole, the Jays have still been more than adequate. Things should balance out over the remainder of the season. And despite digging a deep hole, unlike in 1984 or 1985 (or 1987), they don’t have to win the division to make the postseason.