The Blue Jays arrived in Seattle on Monday with grand aspirations of solidifying themselves as a legitimate contender in the American League Wild Card race, but instead, they left empty-handed.
The three-game series sweep was the worst-case scenario for a team that all of a sudden doesn't have a very large margin for error. Toronto finds itself looking up in the AL Wild Card standings at not only the Mariners, but also the Tigers and Angels.
The 3 1/2-game deficit with approximately six weeks remaining is hardly insurmountable, but it's also more challenging to overcome than it might appear on paper. Here's a look at five things that must happen if the Blue Jays want to remain in the race.
1. The offence needs to rediscover its early-season magic.
The strength of Toronto's roster was always supposed to be found in its everyday lineup. Through the first two months, the projections turned into reality as the Blue Jays scored the second-most runs in the Majors (287). But that was a long time ago, and since then, the production hasn't been anything close to its early billing.
The numbers in August have been ugly as the club has scored 30 runs in 12 games en route to a 3-9 record. There has been a disturbing trend of scoring early, but then going quiet the rest of the game. Toronto scored first twice in Seattle and managed only four runs total in Houston, losing all six of those games. The offensive issues need to be rectified, and soon, for this team to have a chance.
2. Edwin Encarnacion has to make an immediate impact.
Encarnacion got off to a slow start this season by hitting .250 with two homers and 15 RBIs in April. That wasn't a big deal at the time, but the Blue Jays don't have the luxury of remaining patient this late into the year. Encarnacion, who is set to return from the disabled list Friday, hasn't faced big league pitching since July 5, and while it could take him a while to get his timing at the plate, that's also something Toronto simply can't afford.
The veteran first baseman can carry a lineup when he's at the top of his game. Even though Encarnacion hasn't played in more than a month, he ranks fifth in the AL with 26 homers, along with a .277 average and an impressive .959 OPS. Encarnacion's presence alone should stop teams from constantly pitching around Jose Bautista, but the Blue Jays will need more than just that.
Stroman and Hutchison are in the process of easily setting career highs in innings pitched. During any other season, the Blue Jays likely would be talking about an innings limit, but with the club hoping to contend, all bets are off. Toronto will continue to monitor each pitcher, but neither of them will be removed from the rotation unless the club completely falls out of the race.
It almost goes without saying that Stroman has been the club's most valuable pitcher over the past two months. Hutchison has been inconsistent at times, but he has shown flashes of his future potential and continues to answer the ball every fifth day. It's almost impossible to know what to expect from both of these pitchers down the stretch, but the Blue Jays will need them at their best.
4. The 2013 version of Colby Rasmus has to emerge.
Rasmus likely is entering his final six weeks in a Blue Jays uniform. He entered the season with lofty expectations, but his performance so far has been a disappointment. The lack of production will take its toll during free agency, but more importantly to Toronto, it has severely hampered the bottom of the batting order.
Everybody knows the talent is in there, and Rasmus' .840 OPS from last season should be the norm instead of an aberration. He's always been a streaky hitter, and while time is running out, it's also not too late to make an impact down the stretch. If Rasmus gets hot, it completely changes the way opposing pitchers can navigate through the Blue Jays' lineup.
5. The Blue Jays need a little help from their friends.
Let's be honest, the Blue Jays no longer control their own fate. They have to win at least three more games than Seattle and Detroit (or four more than Kansas City), and that's not going to be an easy task. Toronto needs to go 27-13 the rest of the way to reach the 90-win plateau, and while this year may require slightly fewer wins than that to get into the postseason, it's usually a good benchmark.
Scoreboard watching will become the norm in the coming weeks, and the positive news is that Detroit and Seattle have some difficult challenges ahead. The Mariners will play 23 of their final 42 games against teams with records of .500 or better, including four against the Blue Jays from Sept. 22-25. The Tigers will play 22 of their final 43 games against those teams, and the Blue Jays have 19.
What's not included in that final tally is that the Blue Jays have nine games remaining against the Rays, who might have a losing record, but traditionally, Tampa Bay is anything but a losing team against Toronto.