Blue Jays pound Yankees with all eyes on Jose Bautista

TORONTO – You don’t want this to become habit, of course. Post-season baseball is way more fun.

But there’s – I don’t know – an art to playing out the stretch when, like the Toronto Blue Jays, your post-season chances are effectively done and dusted. And there’s definitely an art to watching it. Managing it. Dealing with it.

So you come out to the ballpark and root for the home team, like most of Friday night’s announced crowd of 42,153 at Rogers Centre. Some took in batting practice, and ooh’d and aah’d as Aaron Judge played pepper with the outfield seats. Some of those were doubtless part of the appreciative murmur when Judge crushed Marco Estrada’s fifth pitch of the game into the 200 Level. Not as many, mind you, as those who roared when Ryan Goins slugged his second career grand slam, or pulled off a hidden-ball trick, or when Russell Martin drilled his two-run blast or when Teoscar Hernandez clubbed a solo shot.

“Everybody was great tonight,” said Estrada, who scattered three hits over seven innings in his first start after a new contract extension, celebrating with an 8-1 win over the playoff-bound New York Yankees in the first game of a three-game set that is the final home series of 2017.

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There was a post-game marriage proposal on-field that seemed to go off with without a hitch; and two kids held aloft a sign that was shown on the videoboard before the start of the fifth inning, reading: “Our Mom Beat Cancer Make It Rain.”

Josh Donaldson – the Bringer of Rain – didn’t manage a homer but he took note of the sign and applauded into his glove hand for about 15 seconds, turning around to see where the fans were located. Because… well, because baseball.

“Re-negotiate!” manager John Gibbons yelled, as he walked by Estrada’s post-game media scrum. Estrada (10-8) was once again masterful, setting a career high with his fifth consecutive winning decision and a personal best with 183 2/3 innings.

Judge’s blast, the rookie’s 46th – of which seven have come against the Blue Jays – was measured at 469 feet. Hernandez’s third homer bounced off the facing of third deck, yet somehow came in 30-some feet shorter. Martin’s shot was his first since Aug. 4 and was only the third of 13 to come with a runner on base.

As for Goins? His slam off Masahiro Tanaka (12-12), which came after the Yankees pitched around pinch-hitter Kendrys Morales, was his 10th hit with the bases loaded, tying a club record set in 2003 by Carlos Delgado and the highest total in the majors this season. Goins’ 32 hits with runners in scoring position leads the team and coupled with that .228 average, it’s enough to almost make you believe in the concept of “clutch.” And the value of RBIs. Almost.

Goins was 0-for-22 lifetime against Tanaka going into that at-bat. With 10 strikeouts. “I don’t think I’ve ever hit the ball out of the infield against him, let alone in the air,” said Goins, who like Hernandez and Martin jumped all over flat sliders from Tanaka.

But it was Goins’s hidden-ball play that was all over the highlight packages. It ended the third inning and came after Jose Bautista made a running, reaching, back-handed catch off a Jacoby Ellsbury liner. Goins took Bautista’s throw, faked throwing back to the pitcher, put the ball back in his glove and let his glove dangle against his hip – and waited and watched as Todd Frazier, who walked and went to second on Clint Frazier’s walk, shifted his feet. Goins applied the tag when he saw both feet off the bag.

“It was more to just mess around,” said Goins – while noting that the changed rules about sliding into second base have infielders naturally leaving tags on runners longer.

“The umpire (second base umpire Mark Carlson) gave me a little smile. I guess he thought it was pretty slick.”

There was no retribution from the Yankees – Goins led off the bottom of the inning – although Frazier was obviously embarrassed.

This is Bautista’s final home series as a member of the Blue Jays, who decided they weren’t going to exercise their half of the mutual option on his contract before the ink was even dry. He is crawling to the finish line, looking life and death to hit .200 let alone hit a home run – his place in the lineup guaranteed only by the optics involved, with a vesting option for 2019 based on 300 games played this season and next. There’s no chance of that happening, but given the fact the Blue Jays aren’t playing for anything and the only outfield prospect getting a look (Hernandez) is doing so in left, Gibbons has adopted a no harm, no foul approach.

And so Bautista grinds away, his manager – bless him – still suggesting that he “expects him to do something dramatic, anyhow.”

Bautista has avoided any large, lengthy interviews, no doubt believing there is a professional decorum to be kept. The Blue Jays can’t do the full-blown send-off since, technically, they have yet to exercise the opt out. And unless Bautista announces he’s going to retire, well, the businessman in him likely thinks it’s best to just let this run the course. The guess here is it will be Gibbons who gives fans an opportunity for an organic send-off, perhaps by removing him from the game late in Sunday’s contest – for a defensive replacement or, best-case scenario, a pinch-runner.

Given the way Bautista’s season is on fumes, it will be probably be after a base-on-balls.

Bautista did manage a run batted in in the first inning – his sixth RBI in 74 September plate appearances – with a bouncer down the third-base line to bring in Hernandez, who led off with a single and advanced to third on Starlin Castro’s fielding error on a botched force play at second. He performed CPR on his on-base average by drawing a pair of walks.

Each Bautista at-bat was greeted by warm applause. His plate appearance in the seventh drew a standing ovation and he brought the fans out of their seats with a line drive to right that sounded special but was, in the end, relatively modest. No problem: Bautista brought the crowd out of their seats again just minutes later when he made a sliding catch of a sinking liner off the bat of Clint Frazier.

And so, the countdown continues: Opening Day is March 29. Against the Yankees.