The Toronto Blue Jays’ season is slowly veering off course.
Losers of eight of their last 10, the Jays aren’t playing anywhere near their explosive potential. While the bullpen’s been great of late, the bats are scuffling, and starting pitching remains a giant question mark. That said, the path to the postseason remains a clear-cut journey.
As August turns to September, great teams typically shine. The 2021 Jays were a great example of what a late-summer hot streak can do for a club’s morale. Right now, there are three available AL wild-card spots and 47 games remaining. It’s not do-or-die time quite yet, but we’re at an urgent point in the year.
With that in mind, here are three X-factors that will define the remainder of Toronto’s season.
George Springer’s health
Springer’s elbow injury materialized sometime in June, and from that point on, the Blue Jays have had to load-manage his reps. The 32-year-old is an intense competitor who’s willing to play through pain, but he needs to be reeled in at times, hence the purpose of his 10-day injured list stint that ended Monday.
Fresh off an anti-inflammatory injection in that wonky right elbow, Springer has looked steady in his return to the top of the order, exclusively as the designated hitter. He’s not quite ready for a full-time workload in centre field – which is a tad concerning – but should be soon, according to manager John Schneider.
While Toronto is prepared for Springer’s potential absences after adding Whit Merrifield at the trade deadline, the Blue Jays’ lineup lacks serious punch without its lead-off man. He’s a big deal, even if the elbow issue has limited him to a .694 OPS since July 1.
Watch how Toronto utilizes Springer going forward. Can he play centre? Does his arm look crisp on throws from the outfield? How many days of rest will he need? How do the Jays fit Alejandro Kirk into the DH spot? Those elements will all be crucial in big games against divisional foes down the stretch.
Success vs. the Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are red-hot, carving their way toward what will likely be their first winning campaign since 2017. The Blue Jays hold a 2-6 season-series record with 11 games remaining against Baltimore, seven of which will be played at Camden Yards.
“[The Orioles] just seem like they’re not scared,” said Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman. “They don’t have any pressure on them. They just go out, and all the pressure is on the team they’re playing.”
As Gausman explained, it can be daunting to try and tackle a club playing fearless baseball, especially one that boasts a top-of-the-line late-game makeup. The O’s have a top-three bullpen, so the Blue Jays will be tasked with attacking some of the best power arms in baseball. In high-leverage situations in the eighth and ninth innings, the Blue Jays have a .612 OPS (25th in MLB). That will need to improve.
While games with Baltimore are no longer automatic wins, Toronto is still the better of the two clubs. The Blue Jays need to counter the Orioles’ "nothing-to-lose" pressure with some urgency of their own. If the club approaches each showdown against the O’s with playoff intensity – which seems appropriate at this point – then good things are bound to happen. If the Blue Jays don’t step it up, they may end up chasing Baltimore during the final weeks of the season.
Can José Berríos snap back into No. 3 starter status?
We can argue the trade-off in a Yusei Kikuchi vs Mitch White debate for the rest of the year. While that fifth-starter situation is urgent, too, it’s far less pertinent than what’s been happening with Berríos.
The 28-year-old is no longer just unlucky or tweaking his delivery on the mound. He’s straight-up having a bad season, the worst since his rookie year in 2016. After his last start on Aug. 12, Berríos’s ERA rose to 5.61, the worst mark among qualified AL starters.
"I don't feel happy right now, the way I've been throwing my last two starts," the right-hander said. "I'm a competitive guy. I want to go out there and do well, so I don't feel happy."
The frustration is mutual for Blue Jays fans, who’ve grown accustomed to excellence from Berríos after his dazzling 2021 season. Those days are in the past, and Toronto desperately needs the righty to start pitching like a mid-rotation guy because, despite all his struggles, Berríos is the Jays’ likely No. 3 starter in a potential wild-card series.
If Berríos snaps out of his slump, even just enough to dip his season ERA permanently below 5.00, Toronto is much better equipped for the final seven weeks of the year. If his bloated August ERA is a preview for the remainder of the season, October baseball becomes less and less likely with each of his starts.
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