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Blue Jays remember their season to forget

Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista warms up before a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017.

Michael Dwyer/AP

Heading into the start of this season, general manager Ross Atkins suggested that the Toronto Blue Jays would need an almost perfect ride to enjoy a successful year.

When you consider that one of their top pitchers was beset all season by blister problems; their starting second baseman continued to be brittle; two of the clubhouse leaders wound up on the disabled list less than a month into the season; and their iconic power hitter was more slug than slugger, things did not exactly go as hoped.

The Blue Jays put the finishing touches on a problematic 2017 season in New York against the Yankees on Sunday with a 2-1 win to close with a record of 76-86. The win, combined with Baltimore's 6-0 loss to Tampa Bay, allowed Toronto to vault over the Orioles to finish fourth in the American League East, the first time all year the Blue Jays escaped the basement.

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It was Toronto's first losing season since 2013 when it finished last in the AL East with a record of 74-88.

It marked a bitter end to a season that began with high expectations from fans and players, after the Blue Jays had reignited interest in the game across Canada with back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016.

More than 3.2 million fans poured into Rogers Centre this season, the highest total in the American League and third highest overall in baseball – a testament to the Blue Jays' wide appeal.

Despite fielding one of the oldest teams in the majors, the Blue Jays remained confident they could reward their supporters and get back to the postseason if everything fell into place.

Instead, it seemed as though everything fell apart as the team struggled with its worst start in franchise history. That made the entire injury-filled season an uphill climb that proved too tough.

"I think it was a hard, trying season for all of us," said outfielder Jose Bautista, the former all-star slugger whose season-long struggles at the plate exemplified a year gone wrong. "Unfortunately, we couldn't come up with the goals that we set out in spring training."

One of the all-time great hitters in Blue Jays history, Bautista, 36, could never get going at the plate. Once a home-run menace who led the majors in the long ball in 2010 and 2011, Bautista hit only 23 this season.

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But it was a batting average of just .203, the lowest in Major League Baseball among all regulars with at least 500 at-bats, that really stood out. And he also struck out 170 times, a franchise high for one season.

Unless your name was Justin Smoak, Marcus Stroman or Josh Donaldson (over the second half of the season), there was little to celebrate on a team that remained mired in last place in the AL East for almost the entire campaign.

"Win about 20 more games," came the wry comment from starter J.A. Happ, when asked what one aspect of the season he would change if he had that power.

"We just never had a sustained run that we needed," Happ continued. "We never could quite get back to that .500 mark and then move on from there.

"I think that, along with the tough start we had, and all the injuries we had – it just wasn't a consistent year for us. And if you're not relatively consistent you're not going to be there when it's all said and done."

It would have been almost impossible to envisage a worse start for the Blue Jays, which left them in a dark hole they would spend the entire season trying to claw their way out of.

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Their opening game was a harbinger of things to come, a 2-1 walk-off loss in the 11th inning to the Baltimore Orioles when Mark Trumbo stroked a home run off reliever Jason Grilli.

Toronto lost nine of its first 10 games, the worst start in franchise history. The Blue Jays went on to drop 11 of their first 13 games and 17 of 23. That dumped them into last place in the AL East, a position they became familiar with.

By the end of the first month, Toronto was already eight games off the pace in the standing.

"We knew we had a rough road ahead of us," said Ryan Tepera, who morphed into a dependable set-up pitcher out of the bullpen for manager John Gibbons. "But I think throughout the whole season we stayed confident and we rode it out and we stayed positive to where we still had that chance.

"There was a point, multiple times, that we had chances to get back to .500. And [if] we get back to .500, you build that confidence of just knowing what we've come through already and you just roll with it. You never know what could happen after that."

But the Blue Jays could never climb that high.

Nine times the team clawed its way to within one game of .500 and nine times the opportunity slipped through its fingers.

The last time was on June 22 when the Blue Jays had built a nice little 22-17 run to move to an overall record of 35-36 heading into a game against the Texas Rangers. But Texas walloped Toronto 11-4, which ignited a 2-9 slide and 11 days later the Blue Jays were eight back of the break-even mark.

But the team continued to battle and brought its record to 59-62 on Aug. 17 with a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Despite their season-long struggles, the Blue Jays were still only three games out of the second AL wild-card playoff spot with three games in Chicago against the Cubs and then three more in Florida against the Rays.

The players were suddenly pumped about rekindling their playoff hopes with a good road run. But the Blue Jays fell on their swords with three disheartening losses against the Cubs. After then losing two of three against Tampa Bay, the Blue Jays started to feel their season was cooked.

"I think you could say it was the Chicago series that a lot of the guys will point to as being the turning point," Tepera said. "We were trending upwards and we go into Chicago and get swept there.

"It's not like we played bad baseball. We just had three tough losses there and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the way right there."

And then there were injuries, a multitude of aches and sprains, blisters and bruises that haunted the team all year.

The Blue Jays finished with more than 1,400 man-games lost to the disabled list, for players who were hurt while assigned to the big-league roster, according to Stats LLC, MLB's official data provider.

That figure represents a franchise high since such data started being collected in 1987 and is a two-fold increase over 2016.

Donaldson, the star third baseman, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki were both repeat offenders, heading to the DL in April – Donaldson with a recurring calf injury and Tulowitzki with a hamstring issue.

While Donaldson rebounded nicely after a 38-game absence to hit 24 of his 33 home runs over the second half of the season, the same could not be said for Tulowitzki. He was limited to just 66 games and was finished for good in late July when he suffered a nasty right ankle sprain.

Toronto's pitching rotation was hit hard and at one point three of the five starters the Blue Jays began the season with were on the DL at the same time. The Blue Jays used 14 different starters compared to just seven a year ago.

All the bad luck began to surface as early as spring training, when Aaron Sanchez – who was expected to be the leader of the rotation after a breakout campaign in 2016 when he led the AL with a 3.00 ERA – developed a blister on his right middle pitching finger.

"Irrelevant," Sanchez said at the time.

Some irrelevancy.

After four separate stints on the DL, which included a surgical procedure to remove part of the nail, Sanchez's season officially came to halt earlier last month after it was discovered he had developed a pulley sprain – damage to the ligaments in the joint of the same finger.

Sanchez finished with only eight starts and 36 innings.

The team also lost Happ, a 20-game winner the previous season, for six weeks early with left elbow inflammation.

And then there were the struggles on offence.

Entering the final day of the regular season, Toronto was hitting just .241, the second worst team batting average among the 30 teams in the majors and about 14 points lower than MLB's average.

Toronto's on-base percentage of .313 was also among baseball's bottom feeders and the team's ability to come up with a big hit was also brutal. The Blue Jays average of .230 hitting with runners in scoring position was MLB's third lowest average.

Overall, it was a season the team would just as soon forget.

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