TORONTO – As Kevin Pillar went from goat to hero in the ninth inning of Monday night’s 5-4 win over the Minnesota Twins, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder thought back on a conversation he had with Jose Bautista hours earlier.
“I was down in the cage before the game and Bautista talked to me about my role on this team, and some at-bats I’m going to get, whether they’re off the bench or facing some left-handed pitching,” recalled Pillar. “He told me to be aggressive. Even if you swing and miss sometimes, it sets a tone, showing the pitcher you’re aggressive, and they’re more likely to miss over the plate, rather than you being passive, and knowing they can maybe expand out of the zone and feel a little bit more in control on the mound.”
Pillar put that advice into action in the bottom of the ninth, when he punched a base hit to right field that scored Erik Kratz, running for Dioner Navarro, with the winning run. In the top of the ninth Pillar, in for Melky Cabrera as a defensive replacement, dove for a Kurt Suzuki bloop that got past him to score one run and set up the tying score a batter later.
“The biggest thing was just being aggressive and once I swung and missed the first two times, I knew I had to let the ball travel a little bit more, see the pitch longer,” Pillar said of his approach in the at-bat. “It was a slider off the plate and I was able to nestle it in somewhere and it feels good.”
What prompted the conversation with Bautista?
“It was kind of out of nowhere,” he said. “I was down there maybe 10 minutes before the game taking some flips and he was in the cage next to me, and he just stopped hitting and had that conversation with me. He looked at my swing and told me, ‘Nothing is wrong with your swing. You’re in a tough role.’ He explained he was in that role before and it took him some time in that role to play every day. He just said, ‘Prepare yourself throughout the game, and when you get a chance, go out there and be aggressive. Have good at-bats and put yourself in a situation to help the team win.’”
Pillar apologized to first base coach Tim Leiper in the clubhouse after the game for his dive, saying that he should have played it safe and kept the ball in front of him. Leiper, who handles the outfielders, smiled, and forcefully said no apology was needed.
Even if the play was the wrong one, Pillar’s heart was in the right place.
“It’s a tough read,” he said of Suzuki’s hit. “I just erred on the side of being aggressive than being passive. It probably wasn’t the right decision but I feel like that’s a catch I’ve made many times before and I felt like I got a good read off the bat. It had a little bit more top-spin than maybe I anticipated and I thought worst-case scenario I was going to get a glove on it and be able to keep it in front of me. I guess that’s the reason you don’t dive in those situations because you see what it leads to, the next hit barely gets out of the infield and scores the tying run. Baseball is a weird game where you get a chance to make up for a mistake you made in the previous inning or earlier in the game, and I was fortunate enough to make it happen.”
Getting the opportunity to make amends doesn’t always happen so quickly, and there was little time between the bad and good.
“(The defensive play) was in the back of your mind, I would say even before I went up to the plate, knowing I was hitting fourth that inning, and it becomes a little bit more of a reality that I’m going to hit when (Dioner Navarro) draws that walk,” said Pillar. “(Anthony) Gose is going to try to get him over, and I’m going to be in a situation whether it’s with one or two outs to make up for what I did in the field and ultimately win the game. It’s a huge roller-coaster of emotions right there, and I guess that’s baseball, there are a lot of ups and downs, you’ve just got to find a way to get back centred and deal with the task at hand.”
Said manager John Gibbons: “That was big for Kev. It was big for the whole team. Kev doesn't play a lot, he gets some games against left-handers and he goes in for defence and he knows that's not a smart play. You let it drop and keep that guy on first base. ... He’s also good enough and he’s made that play plenty of times, but it’s still not a real smart in that situation. But he made up for it in a big, big way.”
The Blue Jays lead the Baltimore Orioles by 5.5 games in the AL East and the New York Yankees by 6.5, and they’ll face their two primary pursuers in 10 of the next 13 games following the series with the Twins. That stretch is a chance to build a serious cushion, or let their rivals tighten things up.
Drew Hutchison isn’t looking for excuses to explain some of his odd splits this season, as he explains in this Blue Jays notebook.
Jose Reyes turned one of the Blue Jays’ prettier double plays this season, as he adjusted his route to Joe Mauer’s groundball in the seventh after it deflected off Aaron Loup’s glove, charged at second for one out and made a strong throw to first for the second out.
Few players have the athleticism and body control to make the same play.
“As soon as I caught it I knew that I was going to take it myself because Brett (Lawrie) was a little bit far from the base,” said Reyes. “I had to take the chance there and it worked out perfect.”
R.A. Dickey was cruising until the sixth inning until Josh Willingham opened the inning with a triple. Oswaldo Arcia came up next and was hit by a pitch the Blue Jays felt he leaned into.
Dickey argued with home plate umpire Tom Hallion and manager John Gibbons came out to ask for a review. He couldn’t challenge the play, as only whether a batter was hit or not can be reviewed, not what the batter’s intent was.
“The only reviewable play is whether it actually hit him, and everybody knows it hit him, but I thought he leaned into it,” said Gibbons. “So I asked (Hallion) to check with those guys, then check to see if you can, like the play at home plate, you can look at it to see if he blocked the plate, and look at the call to see if you missed the actual call, then you can overturn it. I said, ‘Can you do that here?’ So he checked with those other guys, they don’t allow that. That’s probably something they ought to add to it, you know? Maybe they’ll add that.”
The call put runners on first and third, Dickey proceeded to walk Kendrys Morales and he needed Dustin McGowan to induce a Trevor Plouffe double play ball to escape the frame with a 4-2 Blue Jays lead intact.
“I felt like he intentionally tried to get struck by the baseball,” said Dickey. “I thought he did it on purpose, I voiced my opinion and they obviously had a different one.”