December 29, 2015 - 8:30 AM
TORONTO - A trade deadline to remember. A second-half surge to the playoffs. A bat flip for the ages.
The Toronto Blue Jays put baseball back on the map in the playoff-starved city this year and the rest of the country took notice. Canada's lone Major League Baseball team, which won the East Division title and came within two wins of the World Series, was voted the landslide winner of The Canadian Press team of the year award.
"There's so many adjectives that come to mind, but great, exciting, proud," former general manager Alex Anthopoulos said of the 2015 team. "I think it just meant a lot for Canada and the city obviously, but more Canada than anything else.
"I know the slogan and the hashtag was 'Come Together' and it was true. It seemed like everybody came together and fans that weren't fans became fans. I think we'll be talking about it for years to come."
The Blue Jays picked up 40 votes (71 per cent) in an online survey of broadcasters and editors from media outlets across the country. The Canadian world junior hockey team that won gold last January was a distant second with six votes (11 per cent).
"It seems funny, on some levels, to elect a team that didn't even get to its league final," said Jonathan McDonald, sports editor of The Province in Vancouver. "But for the first time in a long, long time, the Blue Jays had a good chunk of Canada captivated by baseball again. And I mean captivated. People were talking about the Jays seven days a week for about three months. That's an accomplishment in itself."
The Blue Jays had a powerful offence but were tripped up by several key injuries at the start of the season. Team defence suffered and Toronto split its first 100 games.
"You can be a .500 club and know that maybe the roof is going to cave in and you're overachieving. Or you know you can be underachieving and know that you're way better than this," Anthopoulos said. "And it was clear in our minds, we were way better than this."
That's when Anthopoulos pulled off the first in a series of stunning trades. He acquired star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in a deal with Colorado and soon topped that by landing ace left-hander David Price, giving the Blue Jays the front-line starter they needed.
After years of looking to the future, Toronto was playing for the present. Outfielder Ben Revere and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe also joined the team during that memorable week and Toronto's fanbase was downright giddy.
The Blue Jays were suddenly real contenders in the American League. Over the second half of the season, they played like it.
With an offence that boasted league MVP Josh Donaldson and sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto soon powered its way to the top of the division standings. Price came as advertised, going 9-1 with the Blue Jays and providing a stabilizing force to the rotation.
There were some pleasant surprises too.
Marco Estrada started the year in the bullpen and became a key starter. Rookie closer Roberto Osuna played like a veteran. And waiver wire pickup Chris Colabello hit at an impressive .321 clip.
Manager John Gibbons was pulling the strings and had the team playing with confidence. The sellout crowds at Rogers Centre couldn't get enough.
"This was a group that cared about each other, that played for one another," Anthopoulos said. "Look, they were talented as well — we had some star players — but they meshed so well together. I had people come up to me and say with so many superstar players, how come? They just bonded together, that's a credit to the manager, to the staff and to the players themselves.
"They all bought in. I think the fans — they connected with the fans — because they saw that day in and day out."
An East Division title would follow and then came a five-game series win over the Texas Rangers. The Blue Jays stumbled over the first two games at home but rebounded to win the next two on the road.
It set up a deciding Game 5 that featured a Bautista homer — complete with that epic bat flip — in a four-run seventh inning that helped the Blue Jays to a 6-3 victory and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
Next up were the Kansas City Royals, who won the first two games of the best-of-seven ALCS at home and eventually took a 3-2 series lead back to Kauffman Stadium. Bautista hit two homers in Game 6 but it wasn't enough as the Blue Jays dropped a 4-3 decision, going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
The Royals went on to beat the New York Mets in the World Series.
"We had a great club and I don't feel arrogant saying that. I mean, I feel it's a fact," Anthopoulos said. "We had a club that was capable of winning the World Series. We didn't, the Royals won it and they deserved to win it. They played the best.
"But it was a sense of pride in the front office, organizationally, all of us collectively helped put a World Series-calibre team on the field, which is what it's about."
New president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins will try to guide the Blue Jays back to the playoffs in 2016. Anthopoulos turned down a contract offer to return and former president Paul Beeston retired.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2015