Biggio returns to Blue Jays for second playoff push of season

TORONTO — Called up Tuesday and thrust into the most important series of the Toronto Blue Jays‘ season, the most important series Rogers Centre has seen in five years, a playoff series for all intents and purposes, Cavan Biggio doesn’t feel much has changed. He’s been playing playoff-style baseball with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons for weeks.

“Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun,” Biggio said Tuesday, standing in front of his sort-of new, sort-of old home dugout before the Blue Jays fell, 7-2, to the New York Yankees. “Down there everyone cares and pulls for each other just like they do up here. It’s definitely a similar feel.”

Similar in a couple ways. The Bisons began their season playing in Trenton, NJ while Buffalo’s Sahlen Field underwent a substantial renovation prior to hosting a portion of the Blue Jays’ home schedule in June and July. When the Blue Jays returned to Rogers Centre, the Bisons shifted home themselves and eventually won the franchise’s first division title since 2005, finishing the regular season with a 71-46 record and +144 run differential.

In non-pandemic times, that would have qualified Buffalo for a traditional postseason tournament culminating in a championship series. But this season’s playoffs are structured as a 10-game “Triple-A Final Stretch” in which each club plays a five-game home series and five-game road series. The team with the highest winning percentage over those 10 games is named champion.

So far, the Bisons are tied for second place with a 4-1 record through their first five-game series — three of the wins being walk-offs. And Biggio’s been right in the middle of it. Last Thursday, he walked to load the bases in the bottom of the 10th before Gregory Polanco won the game with a single. The next night he walked in the bottom of the ninth, this time ahead of Polanco’s walk-off homer. Sunday, he scored one of two runs on Christian Colon’s game-winning, ground-rule double.

“I can’t say enough about (Bisons manager) Casey Candaele and the rest of those players on that triple-A team,” Biggio said. “That clubhouse that they have down there, they keep it loose. … They have a lot of fun when they play the game. And the No. 1 thing down there is to win. And when you play like that, it just makes everything that much better.”

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Playing part in a pair of postseason pushes is a bright-side reward for Biggio at the end of a trying season, the toughest he’s had since turning professional in 2016. Over 290 plate appearances with the Blue Jays, Biggio’s hit .215/.316/.350, good for an 82 OPS+ that stands in stark contrast to the 122 he posted in 2020 and the 113 he put up a season prior as a rookie.

And his peripherals don’t play a nicer tune. His strikeout rate is up, his walk rate’s down. His .293 wOBA is higher than what would be expected (.278) based on the quality of contact he’s made. After featuring a patient, selective approach over his first two MLB seasons — Biggio swung at the lowest rate of pitches outside the zone of any qualified hitter in 2020 — his chase rate increased five percentage points in 2021. Pitches he once took on his way to walks became ones he whiffed at on his way to strikeouts.

Of course, context matters. Biggio’s 2021 began with multiple balls in play deflecting off his right hand during spring training, bending his pinkie finger “the way it shouldn’t bend” and causing a blood blister that had to be drained. He carried those hand injuries into the season, playing through pain until it became too much and sidelined him for several days in mid-April.

A month later, he took his first of two trips to the injured list due to neck and back issues — a cervical spine ligament sprain, officially — that plagued him throughout the summer. And while on a triple-A rehab assignment during the second IL stint, Biggio collided with Josh Palacios as the pair chased a sinking liner, suffering a Grade 1 UCL sprain in his left elbow.

It’s not so easy to rediscover an approach and find consistency at the plate when you’re spending that much time off the field and everything hurts when you’re on it. Biggio has tinkered with a few approach adjustments and mechanical tweaks throughout the season, as most players do. But he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to find something that works or let an adjustment take because his playing time’s been so sporadic.

“It’s definitely challenging. But that’s a big part of this game. And it’s a big part of this game that I’ve never really had to deal with before,” Biggio says. “If you want to look at the silver lining, I’m glad I went through it the way I did. I was able to learn a lot about myself and about my body. And I’m going to use that later on in my career as I go.

“I think the biggest thing was just finding a good routine — not only for my body, but also in the cage, as well. Making adjustments; the ability to make adjustments game-to-game. I feel like my routine that I developed down there has been pretty good. And I’m going to continue that here.”

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The good news is Biggio’s healthy enough to play and squeeze a few more afternoons of batting cage work out of his season. Although he hit .197/.308/.318 with 10 walks and 23 strikeouts over the 19-game rehab assignment he just completed with the Bisons, the Blue Jays have been encouraged by the quality of his plate appearances, particularly over his last four games when he walked four times and came up with a couple hits.

“He’s back physically healthy — I think that’s first and foremost. And he’s had really good at-bats. He’s continued to have better at-bats with the team in triple-A,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “His versatility, the handedness, the plate discipline — they’re good complements to us.”

For now, Biggio says he’s been told to expect to play the outfield if he gets into any of Toronto’s remaining games. That’s where he spent five of his final eight games with the Bisons before being called up. But this is late-September baseball, so it’s probably best not to expect anything. And Biggio’s ability to play any position on the diamond save for shortstop and catcher could make his a useful, late-game puzzle piece as manager Charlie Montoyo plays matchups and optimizes his defence.

“The expectation is to contribute in any way possible. And I could play pretty much every position out there,” Biggio said. “Anything can happen in this game and over the course of a game. In a big situation, whatever it calls for, I’ll be ready for it.”

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More than anything, Biggio’s merely happy to go from one playoff push to another. Toronto’s postseason chances may have taken a significant hit with Tuesday’s defeat to the Yankees. But they’re still alive. Still capable of landing one final, improbable punch at the end of a season of improbabilities. And if asked, Biggio will be ready to play his part in it.

“The past couple of months, it’s been tough. Whether I was here rehabbing, watching the games from the dugout. Or if I was watching from my bed in my hotel room in Buffalo. You can see the energy and the amount of fun that everyone’s having — and there’s a little bit of FOMO there,” Biggio said. “But this means a lot, just to be here, be a part of the team again. I’m just looking forward to contributing any way possible. We’ve got a special team here. And hopefully we can keep it going.”

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