TORONTO – Ricky Romero and J.P. Arencibia met Ryley James Martin back on April 2, playing with the sick little boy so full of life and his family for about 20 minutes in front of the Toronto Blue Jays dugout.
They were taken by his smile, by his verve, and by the way he kept trying to yank the ball away from his two sisters. They helped him hit, and let him run around. "Just be a kid," was the way Romero put it.
They were glad to have brought him a few precious moments of joy.
Romero and Arencibia thought about Ryley James Martin again in the hours before they played key roles in a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night. Earlier in the day word reached them that on Wednesday the 2½-year-old boy from Oshawa, Ont., who had left such an impression on them, had succumbed to leukemia.
Overcome by emotion, Romero sent out a series of messages via Twitter before the game saying goodbye to the "lil angel," and then carved the initials RJM into the back of the mound before he pitched.
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Arencibia printed off an enlarged picture of him beside little Ryley and kept staring at it.
"I hit that home run and it gave us a lead and in my head I said, ‘That’s it, we’re going to seal this deal,’" said Arencibia, whose two-run shot in the seventh was the decisive blow. "I came inside the clubhouse and I took a look at his picture. In the grand scheme of things, that home run is that home run, but life is precious. It puts stuff into perspective for us."
Added Romero: "I’m not a big guy that dedicates games because baseball is a crazy game and you never know what kind of outing you’re going to have out there. But deep inside me, I wanted to get this win."
That they did, on a day that offered a cruel reminder of how sometimes baseball can be so trivial, yet also so full of meaning.
"I remember coming inside and talking to Ricky (after the April 2 meeting) and saying, ‘That’s crazy, this kid doesn’t have much longer to live and we’re here playing this game,’" Arencibia recalled. "It just tells you how blessed we are. If a kid like that can be happy, what does an 0-for-4 really matter?"
He didn’t have to wrestle with that question, as the Blue Jays (22-21) bounced back a night after dropping a five-error stinker in a 6-5 loss to the AL-East leading Rays (25-19) before a small but appreciative crowd of 12,590.
Romero (4-4) dominated throughout his seven innings, allowing just B.J. Upton’s solo shot among three hits and two walks with six strikeouts. He looked headed toward a no-decision until Juan Rivera earned a one-out walk in the seventh, and Arencibia followed by clubbing the first pitch from Wade Davis over the wall in centre for his seventh of the year.
That put the Blue Jays up 3-1 and Marc Rzepczynski – who allowed Kelly Shoppach’s solo shot in the eighth – and Frank Francisco, pitching the ninth for his fifth save, made it stick from there.
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Afterwards Arencibia collected the ball from the final out, wrote a message to the Martin family on it, and got all his teammates to sign it.
"It kills me because I have nieces and nephews," said Arencibia. "I met the kid, I met the family and I shed a few tears after that home run because it was for him. today’s game was for him and I’m glad we were able to come out on top."
Davis (4-4) kept pace with Romero until the pivotal seventh, allowing only the three runs on seven hits and four walks over 7.2 innings.
Rivera – starting at first base in place of Edwin Encarnacion, who had two of the five errors Wednesday – was a thorn in Davis’s side, ripping his third homer of the season in the second and lining out hard to right in the fifth.
He also played a nice and solid first base, bringing some needed stability to the field. Manager John Farrell said there was "probably a good chance" that Rivera would get the start at first base again Friday.
But that was background noise on a day when baseball felt secondary.
"Everytime, I looked at the back of the mound, I kept on looking at his initials, just remembering that time we were playing in front of that dugout, the smile he had," said Romero. "It’s definitely something you carry with you forever."
NOTES: Jose Bautista’s streak of reaching base in 23 straight games came to an end. … Rays dynamo Sam Fuld sat out and manager Joe Maddon said the outfielder would be given another day off Friday. … Roberto Alomar will represent the Blue Jays at next month’s draft.