TORONTO — Kevin Gausman is tasked with keeping the Blue Jays’ season alive in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series.
After leaving his last regular season outing with a cut to his right middle finger, Gausman will start the game-winning or homecoming game on Saturday, as the Blue Jays look to regroup from a 4-0 loss to the Mariners in Game 1 of Friday.
After six playoff appearances since 2014, the right-hander understands the mission.
“That’s the only thing about the playoffs,” Gausman said Thursday. “You just have to be ready anytime or anyone.”
Gausman is no stranger to the rigors of October. He was in the visitor’s dugout with the Orioles when Edwin Encarnación hit an 11th-inning home run in the 2016 Wild Card Game at Rogers Center, having already pitched three postseason games by then.
“I pitched the last game of the [regular] season, so I have nothing to do with [the Wild Card contest]. But, man, it was electric,” Gausman said of the Blue Jays’ 2016 win. “It was nerve-wracking. I remember the next day I had a headache, because I think I was so locked in every pitch.
The days of a single Wild Card game are over, but the pressure of the moment remains. Adding to the intrigue: Gausman will face Robbie Ray, who won the AL Cy Young Award last year with the Blue Jays before signing a five-year contract with the Mariners in the offseason.
On Friday, the Blue Jays were defeated by a few errors from starter Alek Manoah and an inability to string together regular beats. Righting the ship and keeping the season alive will heavily depend on Gausman’s performance in Game 2.
“To turn to a guy like him in a must-watch game is something that really makes us happy,” Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider said after Friday’s loss. “He’s been a leader in the clubhouse, a leader of the staff. He’s had an amazing year so we’re just looking for another quality outing from him.
If Manoah emerged as the Blue Jays ace this season, Gausman was a very close second.
The 31-year-old had a 3.35 ERA with 205 strikeouts in 174 2/3 innings in his first season with Toronto, turning his splitter into an art form and playing it well with a fastball at four seams and a slider.
He has also been an indispensable steady hand throughout the year.
“Once you get to the playoffs, don’t try to think too much,” Gausman said of his season and the Blue Jays’ performance. “Just go out there and give it your all, and know things are going to escalate, but [don’t] let them snowball.
One area of concern for the Blue Jays could be Gausman’s numbers when pitching at home. The right-hander allowed a 4.57 ERA at Rogers Center versus a 2.30 mark on the road. The opponents reached .305 with an .805 OPS against him in Toronto, but only .243 and .604 in other stadiums.
Still, it’s his team’s most important moment of the year. And he seizes the opportunity to perform in front of his fans.
“The home advantage is huge,” Gausman said. “We’re going to rely on these Canadians to bring energy. … I love our roster, I love our staff and our bullpen has been amazing all year.
This bullpen carried a heavier load than the Blue Jays might have liked in Game 1. their Saturday starter, who has gone six or more innings in 18 of his 31 regular-season starts.
But no one loses sight of all the nuances of October.
“The greatest thing that George [Springer] was talking about was: get out and have fun,” Gausman said. “I think it’s good that we have three games because those first two legs go by pretty quickly.”