TORONTO – A seventh inning without peer in Toronto Blue Jays history, if not baseball history, started on a play as bizarre as they come, one that left a crew of veteran umpires and replay officials in New York struggling to untangle the mess. It led to an official protest, a buoyant crowd of 49,742 turned unruly mob littered the field, and put the Texas Rangers in position for a travesty of a victory in Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
Only then, a tainted win unravelled, spectacularly, quickly, decisively. Three straight errors loaded the bases. After a fielder’s choice force at home, a looper just past second base tied the game, even if there was another force out on the play. And then Jose Bautista secured himself a spot in franchise lore with one of the biggest home runs in team history, a three-run laser beam that secured a remarkable 6-3 victory that sent the Blue Jays to the American League Championship Series.
This wasn’t just a game – it was an experience, one worthy of a book, and a documentary. Even that, with the Blue Jays becoming just the sixth team to rally back from an 0-2 deficit in the division series, might not be enough. The Kansas City Royals, 7-2 winners over the Houston Astros, await.
“Everything that happened kind of led to that big moment with the home run, and that’s what made it fun, obviously, because we won,” said Bautista. “It was unbelievable competition. Everybody was trying to win for their team, and you see it on a slide at second base, a reaction after a strikeout, a reaction after a base hit and that’s what baseball’s all about. Just play with your heart, play with emotion and just try to win.”
Full ALDS Game 5 Coverage
- Blue Jays a disinfectant for Toronto’s wounded sports psyche
- Fan who caught Encarnacion’s HR ball: ‘I’m going to sleep with it’
- Rangers’ Andrus on two errors: This is the toughest point of my career
- Bautista home run brings Martin therapeutic relief
- Encarnacion’s game-tying home run not lost in shuffle for Blue Jays
- Bautista's 'Grade A' bat flip puts exclamation point on ALDS
- Trio of young arms prove future has arrived for Blue Jays
The drama didn’t stop at the home run. The dugouts emptied twice before the seventh ended, Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, angry over Bautista’s epic bat flip, barking at Edwin Encarnacion as he tried to calm the crowd down to trigger the first time, the right-hander tapping Troy Tulowitzki after a foul pop up for the third out to trigger the second.
"There’s a lot of tension, both teams are trying to win," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "I mean, this is do-or-die. Teams that get to this point, a big part of the reason is because they’re great competitors. They’ve got fire inside of them. Sometimes that happens, and both teams are a perfect example of that."
The Rangers tried to rally in the eighth. They put two on with one out against Aaron Sanchez. Roberto Osuna took over, and struck out Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus.
In the ninth Rougned Odor lined out before Mike Napoli and Will Venable both struck out.
A joyous mob scene followed on the field. These things do happen in Toronto sports.
"Crazy," said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "There would be times in the third, fourth, fifth innings, I’d stare at the crowd, stare at the (AL East championship) banner and try to remind myself, ‘Hey, we wanted this, win or lose, it’s a good moment for Canada, for the fans, for the organization.’ I kept trying to remind myself to enjoy it."
For a long time it was hard for the Blue Jays and their fans to do that.
But the elation followed the frustration and fury.
It started with two outs and Odor on third in a 2-2 game in the top of the seventh. Russell Martin’s relay back to the mound, the kind that takes place hundreds of thousands of times each regular season without incident, struck Shin-Soo Choo’s bat and deflected down the line.
"He didn’t do anything wrong, it was either they’re lucky or we’re unlucky," said Martin.
Alertly, Odor hustled home, even as home-plate umpire and crew chief Dale Scott signalled that the play was dead. Scott ordered Odor back to third, only to be awarded home again after a conference in the middle of the infield.
"That was my mistake," Scott told a pool reporter. "I was mixing up two rules and I called time, but then it started clicking. I went wait a minute, wait a minute, there’s no intent on the hitter. He’s in the box, the bat’s in the box. So to make sure I’m on the right page, I got everybody together and that’s what we had. If there’s no intent, if he’s not out of the box, that throw’s live. And after talking, that runner would have scored. Even if I had not called timeout, he was on his way, so we scored the run."
Fans pelted the field with beer cans, rally towels, peanuts – basically anything not tied down. Manager John Gibbons, in his second discussion with Scott, said he planned to protest prompting a rules check with replay officials in New York. The umps then consulted with both managers. The run stood.
The Blue Jays protested, their front office officials scrambling upstairs to interpret the rules and prepare their case. They would have lost if it got to that point. The relevant rule reads: "If the batter interferes with the catcher’s throw to retire a runner by stepping out of the batter’s box, interference shall be called on the batter under Official Baseball Rule 6.03(a)(3) [former OBR 6.06(c)]. However, if the batter is standing in the batter’s box and he or his bat is stuck by the catcher’s throw back to the pitcher (or throw in attempting to retire a runner) and, in the umpire’s judgment, there is no intent on the part of the batter to interfere with the throw, the ball is alive and in play."
That’s where things landed.
"The (replay officials) just told me what the rule was," said Scott. "Then my interpretation was there was no intent and he wasn't out of the box. That was my judgment to make sure I had the rule correct, which we did. My judgment was then there was no interference, he scores."
The Blue Jays regained their composure in the bottom half of the frame, with some help from the Rangers.
Martin, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins, bunting to advance the runners, each reached on errors. Ben Revere’s grounder to first led to a force at home for the first out, pinch-runner Dalton Pompey taking out catcher Chris Gimenez’s legs.
Josh Donaldson’s flare just over Odor’s head allowed Pillar to score although Revere was forced at second. Dyson took over from Cole Hamels. Bautista pummelled a 1-1, 97 mph heater over the wall in centre field.
"At the time everyone is kind of pissed, it’s a play that you never see," Goins said of the feeling in the dugout before the bottom half started. "When we came to the dugout after the third out, we just rallied around each other, that’s how this team is, we’re a tight-knit group and that’s what we’re about, overcoming adversity and that’s the most adversity we’ve faced all season, coming that late in the game. To have a rally like we did and Jose hit the big homer, it’s the epitome of our team coming together as one, and everybody having each other’s backs."
Bedlam ensued. The Rogers Centre was the loudest it’s been since Joe Carter’s World Series winning homer in 1993.
"I was telling those guys in my mind there was no way the game was going to end like that, not to worry about that, just go out and play," said R.A. Dickey. "There’s no way a baseball game like this is going to hinge on Russell Martin hitting Choo in the batter’s box with a baseball. There’s no way that’s going to happen. Sure enough that next inning those fluky errors happened, and here we are."
The Blue Jays had tied the game 2-2 in the sixth, when Hamels unwisely chose to pitch to Encarnacion, who smashed a 93 mph fastball laser into the second deck in left field.
"Sometimes you’ve got to be patient, concentrate 100 per cent because you know they’re not going to throw you anything close," said Encarnacion. "I tried to stay aggressive in that AB, he missed a little bit in and I took a good swing."
Goins saved a run in the top half of the frame with more of his defensive wizardry, sliding to his right to pick an aggressive hop on Elvis Andrus’s chopper up the middle and relay to first.
"That’s what I’m here for, to play defence and do my part," said Goins, who slides on such plays to stop his momentum and allow him to make a strong throw. "Especially with a great runner, if I had kept running it would have been an off-balance throw. Sliding and popping up quick helps with a fast runner and getting the ball over quick."
That pushed Marcus Stroman, an integral part of Blue Jays’ future, through six strong innings. The 24-year-old was followed by 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez, who recorded four outs, and the 20-year-old Osuna, who got the final five outs.
"The composure of the three of them is just unbelievable," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "I can’t say enough good things about them. Their competitiveness and the way they stay even keeled, it’s remarkable.
"It was kind of the blueprint going in, best-case scenario. … To get through that game with three guys, we have David Price rested, we didn’t have to use Marco Estrada today, we’re in a great position moving forward."
He fell behind 1-0 in the first when Delino DeShields doubled on a biteless 1-2 slider to open the game, advanced to third on Choo’s groundout and scored on Prince Fielder’s chopper to first, cleverly evading Martin’s tag.
Choo added on another in the third, turning on an 0-1 heater and sending it over the wall in right, again silencing the crowd.
The Blue Jays struck back in the bottom of the inning, as Revere bounced an infield single off Hamels’ glove, moved to second on Donaldson’s groundout and scored on Bautista’s double.
Hamels wanted no part of Encarnacion, who took two balls and then got two more intentionally. Colabello nearly cork-screwed himself into the ground swinging at the first pitch, and eventually grounded out to end the frame.
Things were tight from there until the madness set in, in one the wildest games in franchise history. As Donaldson said, "The game of baseball, if you try to figure it out you’ll drive yourself crazy, you look at what happened tonight, there’s a lot of crazy people out there."
Yet the Blue Jays are now going to the American League Championship Series, their wild and crazy adventure living on.