3 Blue Jays X-factors in wild-card series vs. Mariners

Every MLB postseason has its heroes, and this year’s playoffs will surely add a new chapter to that story.

The Toronto Blue Jays are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2020 and will host all three games of the wild-card round beginning on Friday. It’ll be the first time since 2016 that postseason baseball is played in Toronto.

If the team is to advance to the ALDS, it will need to surge past the Seattle Mariners in the best-of-three set. To be successful, Toronto’s starting rotation, bullpen and position players must all perform at their best.

With that in mind, here are three players who could potentially serve as X-factors in the wild-card round.

George Springer

As the club’s leadoff hitter and primary centre-fielder, George Springer is likely to significantly impact the outcome of this series, just as he has during his previous postseason appearances.

The 33-year-old, who’s in his second season with the Blue Jays, has made the playoffs five separate times in his career — all with the Houston Astros. He owns 63 games of postseason experience along with a 2017 World Series ring and a Most Valuable Player award from that same series.

Springer knows what it takes to win a championship at this level. He has done it before and now hopes to accomplish that feat with Toronto. And while he’s a four-time All-Star in the regular season, he is widely known for his incredible performances in October.

For his career, the 6-foot-3 outfielder has hit 19 home runs with 38 RBIs and a .269/.349/.546 slash line across 292 plate appearances. The veteran slugger also owns a 140 wRC+, meaning he’s been 40 percent better than league average.

George Springer, right, and Whit Merrifield will be key to the Blue Jays' playoff success. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
George Springer, right, and Whit Merrifield will be key to the Blue Jays' playoff success. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Springer didn’t evolve into a postseason hero right away as he struggled during his first playoff run in 2015, posting a measly 107 wRC+. When he returned in 2017, however, he began to unlock his full potential and he hasn’t slowed down since.

Few hitters have been more productive than Springer in the playoffs since 2017. Only Jose Altuve — Springer’s former teammate — has hit more home runs (23) than him during this span, according to Baseball Savant.

The 11th-overall selection from 2011 also ranks third in slugging percentage (.557) and isolated power (.283), fourth in weighted on-base average (.381) and tied for fifth in batting average (.274) among all qualified big-league hitters.

Injuries are always a concern with Springer, but his nagging elbow issue doesn’t appear to be affecting his current results, as he’s hitting .375/.412/.750 with four home runs and a 231 wRC+ since Sep. 25.

As long as his elbow issue doesn’t flare up, the two-time Sliver Slugger should be poised to make a strong contribution versus the Mariners.

Whit Merrifield

After spending his entire career with the Kansas City Royals, Whit Merrifield had to adjust on the fly once he was traded to the Blue Jays in August, hindering his offensive production. But all that has since changed for the 33-year-old.

Merrifield would likely be the first to admit that he underperformed early on with Toronto, slashing .192/.253/.247 with a 45 wRC+ over his first 30 games (79 PAs). He also struck out far more than anticipated, producing a 19.0 percent strikeout rate — 3.2 percent higher than his career average.

Shortly after teammate Santiago Espinal went down with an oblique injury, though, things started clicking for Merrifield as his playing time increased. And it wasn’t long before he awoke from his offensive slumber.

Sparked by a trip to Tropicana Field, the versatile defender has hit four home runs with 11 RBIs and a .463/.477/.854 slash line in 44 plate appearances since Sep. 21. His 276 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR rank first among all Blue Jays hitters during this impressive span.

Since Espinal’s status for Game 1 remains unclear, Merrifield is likely to open the wild-card series at second base. His versatility could also make him a potential option in the outfield if Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can’t play.

The wild-card series will also serve as Merrifield’s postseason debut at the major-league level. He nearly made his big-league debut with the Royals in 2015, but just as the team was set to promote him, it decided against it at the last minute.

As someone who’s finally receiving his first taste of the playoffs, he’ll surely be extra motivated to make an impact in front of an energized crowd at the Rogers Centre.

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 2: Whit Merrifield #1 of the Toronto Blue Jays gets water dumped on him by teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 after their team defeated the Boston Red Sox in their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on October 2, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
Merrifield, left, has been red-hot at the plate down the stretch. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

José Berríos

The 2022 season hasn’t gone according to plan for José Berríos, but the right-hander could be vital in pushing the Blue Jays past the Mariners.

Alek Manoah is locked in as the Game 1 starter with Kevin Gausman likely to follow in Game 2, although that could change depending on the outcome of Friday’s opener. If a third game is needed, manager John Schneider may call upon Berríos.

Despite his season-long woes — resulting in a career-worst 5.23 ERA over 32 starts — the 28-year-old has been accustomed to pitching in pivotal postseason moments throughout his big-league career. Though he’s only made a pair of playoff starts, only one earned run came against him in each of those outings as he recorded 10 combined strikeouts.

Berríos’s most recent playoff start came against the Astros in Game 2 of the 2020 Wild Card, where the two-time All-Star surrendered just one run on two hits and two walks over five innings. But since the Minnesota Twins' offence only provided him with one run of support, they ultimately fell 3-1.

That likely won’t be a problem for the 6-foot righty this time around, as the Blue Jays scored at least six runs in 14 of his 32 starts. Not to mention, he’s also coming off a very encouraging performance against the Baltimore Orioles on Oct. 3.

While battling the elements at Camden Yards, Berríos held his opponent to just one run on three hits and three walks while posting five punchouts over six innings. He concluded the regular season by pitching six innings or more in four of his final six starts.

Alternatively, the Blue Jays could turn to Ross Stripling — who’s enjoyed a breakout performance this season — in a potential winner-take-all Game 3. But he doesn’t possess the same postseason experience as Berríos, with all 12 of his appearances coming as a reliever.

In all likelihood, though, both hurlers are likely to be available if the series extends that far. No matter who starts the contest, the other will surely be waiting in the bullpen for his name to be called if needed.

If Berríos doesn’t pitch in the wild-card series, then he’ll be in the mix to start Game 1 of the ALDS in Houston should Toronto advance to the next round.

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