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Making the playoffs was an added touch for Blue Jays, Walker

It was a season in which the Toronto Blue Jays didn't play in Toronto, but at refurbished Sahlen Field, a Triple-A stadium in Buffalo.

Despite it being Major League Baseball's shortest season since 1878, just 60 games, it sometimes felt like the longest, with two Spring Training sessions in the books and longer days at the ballpark to pass the time during what was a nation-wide quarantine due to the COVID-19 crisis. Without being able to eat out at restaurants, lunch and dinner were served at the stadium, while the rest came from room service.

Pete Walker of Waterford, the Blue Jays longtime pitching coach, estimates that he ate a few too many bacon double cheeseburgers from room service at the team hotel.

"Bacon double cheeseburger at 11 o'clock at night, 2 a.m. taking Nexium (for acid reflux)," Walker said with a laugh.

And yet for the most part, it was business as usual for Walker and the Blue Jays, had to be business as usual with a season on the line.

Toronto finished 32-28, third in the American League East, and played a best-of-three wild-card series against eventual World Series participant Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, Fla., with the Rays topping the Blue Jays 2-0.

It was the Blue Jays' first playoff berth since 2016, featuring 19 players on their roster with no previous playoff experience.

"It was ... I guess you could say it was a little bizarre," said Walker, now home after completing his eighth season as the club's pitching coach. "But once you got in the flow of things, it seemed a little more normal. We accepted where we were and what we were doing.

"It was certainly different, but we had a great group of guys that all bought into the situation. There wasn't complaining. They all kind of pulled together. We played well because of that. There wasn't the complaining. Guys just treat it like baseball. They found a way to compete on the field."

The Blue Jays spent the bulk of July in Toronto, conducting their "summer camp" or second spring training after the season was suspended indefinitely on March 12 during the original spring portion of the schedule.

On July 18, however, the Canadian government denied the Blue Jays their request to play the home portion of their 2020 schedule at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, deeming the frequent travel across the border into the United States to be too great a risk.

Finally, 13 games into the season which began on July 24, the Blue Jays played a home game at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, home of the Buffalo Bisons (the Triple-A affiliate of the Blue Jays).

The changes to the Buffalo stadium, having been made while the Jays began the season on the road, featured upgrades to the locker room facilities, the lighting and to include Toronto Blue Jays branding throughout. Walker said the Blue Jays players, many of them having played there in the minor leagues, were "blown away" by the metamorphosis.

"Your expectations going in, being somewhat spoiled (as a major leaguer), you think the worst," Walker said of the outlook going into the minor league setting. "The upgrades they made, the clubhouse, the weight room, they made like a mini-Toronto. From a comfort level, it couldn't have been any better. They spent millions of dollars on upgrades to bring it up to spec."

Walker said one of the difficulties of the season was the fast pace at which it was played to maximize the available time. There were limited days off.

"When you win more than you lose, you enjoy it more," he said.

Walker said the Blue Jays have a nucleus of home-grown players who expect to win, including second-generation major leaguers such as Cavan Biggio (son of Craig Biggio), Bo Bichette (son of Dante Bichette) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

"These guys don't expect to go finish third or fourth," Walker said. "Some of these players come from major league families and grew up around the game. They're determined and passionate about the game. They're young players but they're mature. They know what to expect at the major league level. They weren't overwhelmed.

"(Making the playoffs) meant a lot, to be honest with you. For what we went through and not really having a home, for us to make the postseason, it was special in a crazy year. It was a good opportunity for these young guys to make the postseason even though it was short. It's something we will build off of. Moving forward, the experience will be really important."

Walker is set to return to the Blue Jays next year for what he hopes will be a "normal" season. He has grown to think of Toronto as his second home, he said, having begun his stint with the organization as a right-handed pitcher in 2002.

"I love the city," Walker said this week. "I love everything about it. The following is incredible in Canada. You've got a whole country behind you. They're loyal. Even in this crazy season they were following us."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

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