Back-to-back ALCS appearances leaves feeling of pride for Toronto
By Alykhan Ravjiani
TORONTO -- Anything short of a World Series is a disappointing result for a team deep in the heart of the postseason, but 2016 was another building block, and another memorable year for the Blue Jays' organization.
Toronto's postseason run officially came to an end on Wednesday with a 3-0 loss to Cleveland in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, marking the second consecutive season the Blue Jays were one of baseball's final four teams.
The Jays, who ended a 22-year drought last year, made back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since winning consecutive World Series in 1992 and '93. Although the ending was bittersweet, the journey itself established Toronto as a consistent baseball powerhouse across the league.
"They had another great year," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "We got to this point. We weren't able to get over the hump again. But you know what, a [darn] good job of getting to this point.
"I'm proud of those guys as well as the coaching staff. I know the organization is proud of them, too. Hopefully the fans are just as proud of them, because it's an entertaining group. They put on a good show. We just got beat in this series, plain and simple."
The season started and ended with baseball fever across Canada, and it showed in Toronto's attendance numbers. The Blue Jays averaged 41,880 fans per game at Rogers Centre, and they passed the 3 million mark in attendance for the first time since 1993. All of this as the Jays brought in new front-office management, with president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins taking the reins from Alex Anthopoulos.
It wasn't difficult to see why the Blue Jays were so popular after the 2015 run, bringing back a similar cast of characters. Led by the rotation, Toronto pitched its way out of an 11-14 start and actually took a two-game lead over Boston atop the AL East heading into September. The Blue Jays went 11-16 in the final month, but they broke out to win six consecutive games before the ALCS.
"That was always us, an explosive group with the ability to go out there and battle," reigning AL MVP Award winner Josh Donaldson said. "I can't say enough about being around this group, because it was so special. We didn't want it to end like this, but there's going to be more to come."
Toronto's starters would dominate the conversation on a nightly basis, and the Blue Jays finished the year leading the AL in ERA and innings pitched, with a staff of five very different pitchers. Ingrained within that group would be J.A. Happ, who reached the 20-win plateau for the first time in his career; Aaron Sanchez, who led the AL in ERA after winning the final starting rotation spot in Spring Training; and Marco Estrada, who signed a two-year extension after breaking out in '15.
"They were incredible, not just in the postseason, but all season long," outfielder Michael Saunders said. "We had our ups and downs as hitters this year, but I don't think we'd be here without our starting staff. Everything was focused on our hitting coming into the season, so I think our guys kind of went unheralded and a little disrespected. I think, honestly, we had three guys that could be in the talk for the Cy Young Award and the back end of bullpen."
Toronto still established a powerful lineup, with pending free agents Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion combining with Donaldson, Tulowitzki and Canadians Saunders and Russell Martin. While the group doesn't know what lies ahead as a unit, this much is clear: the Blue Jays' brand is not only alive and well, but will move forward with a winning culture firmly established.
"The carrot is raising the banner and getting a ring -- the feeling of being the best in the world," reliever Jason Grilli said. "This thing of losing drives you to do it all over again. It starts when the last out is made. The winter goes by, you reset and hope that you can start dreaming again. Baseball in this country is in a great place. We saw it and we felt it. It was one incredible season."
Alykhan Ravjiani is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.