After a slightly tepid start, post-season baseball is heating up. It’s very nearly at full boil. It’s a great thing. Even Tampa Bay, traditionally the American League East’s morgue when it comes to fan support, looked like a real baseball town.
Of course, in Toronto, once a pretty good baseball town on its own, the whole thing is unfolding like a serial drama on HBO: It’s engaging, but not real.
The Rays were playing their fifth do-or-die baseball game in nine days Tuesday night. They finally died, losing 3–1 to the Red Sox, but not before a 75-per cent-full house (hey, that’s pretty good for Tropicana Field) watched chess master Joe Maddon use a record nine pitchers to get through nine innings, with ace David Price warming up for the 10th in case the Rays managed to claw their way back and force a fifth game.
Meanwhile, former Blue Jays manager John Farrell proved dealing with the devil pays dividends as he guided Boston to the ALCS on the strength of three runs scored on a passed ball, an infield single and a sacrifice fly.
And that was only the second-best game of the day. The Detroit Tigers, like marathon runners trying to dig deep in order to drag themselves over the finish line, won in the fashion that plays like opera in October: falling behind twice before coming back on the strength of a controversial, possibly fan-aided home run; getting the winning run thanks to a two-out, two-strike, broken-bat single from a guy who had struck out 10 times in four-plus games; and having starter and Cy Young favourite Max Scherzer come in as a reliever and work his way out of a bases loaded, no-out jam without giving up a run in the eighth inning.
The reward is a winner-take-all Game 5 in Oakland on Thursday, a repeat of last season when Detroit erased Oakland in their home yard.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland better share his smokes.
What else are Blue Jays fans missing? Oh, right. Wednesday night everyone’s second-favourite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates -- getting their first taste of October baseball in 21 years -- will face the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS for the right to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, the West Coast Yankees. It’s a game so important that former Blue Jay, now-Pirate A.J. Burnett has been deemed too skittish to get the start, with Pittsburgh giving his turn to rookie Gerrit Cole on the road against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright.
It is great stuff. Great drama. And Toronto was supposed to be in the thick of it. Instead back in the land that post-season baseball has seemingly forgot the Blue Jays pulled the scab just a little bit on their disappointing (crushing? Soul-sucking? Abominable?) season.
While baseball was building towards its annual crescendo the Blue Jays, pre-season favourites who many thought would be conducting the symphony -- or at least playing in the band -- were carving the throats of the most unlikely goats as they fired hitting coach Chad Mottola and announced it via press release on Monday.
It was also announced the long-hitting coach Dwayne Murphy — who shared those duties with Mottola — would be retiring.
“It changed the dynamic a little bit when Dwayne stepped down,” Anthopoulos said on Prime Time Sports Tuesday. “We almost viewed them as a tandem… this is a chance to change things up.”
If it seems like a strange move, it was. The Blue Jays weren’t a great hitting team, but they weren’t bad, considering the injuries that riddled their lineup. And given Mottola was specifically charged with the likes of Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Anthony Gose and J.P. Arencibia, he can only be considered to have been a success. Three of the four -- Arencibia being the clear exception -- made positive progress.
No less authority than Tony Rasmus, father of Colby, questioned the move via a series of tweets. First: “This move is perplexing to say the least.”
And: “I obviously thought Chad did a great job keeping Colby in a good frame of mind.”
Now, Papa Rasmus wasn’t trying to stir things up. He wrapped up his brief musings thusly: “But the people running the blue jays are way more qualified than me at knowing who fits their organization best.”
Those people would be Anthopoulos. And on a wonderful day of baseball with the promise of more coming, the only comments from Colby’s dad that didn’t quite ring true this Tuesday were his final ones.
A year ago the Blue Jays were coming off a 73-win season but Anthopoulos’s approval rating remained high despite a slide from 85 and 81 wins the previous two years. He’s a good person, for one, which comes across easily in public and private, and for the first couple of years running the Blue Jays he successfully articulated and for the most part appeared to execute a patient, long-term approach to sustainable success.
But then the season happened and nothing went very much right even though Anthopoulos seemingly robbed the rest of baseball blind with his off-season makeover a year ago.
A year later, with the rest of baseball gathered watching another post-season masterpiece unfold, Anthopolous was tuning his violin in the margins.
Firing a hitting coach will need to be the very least of his off-season makeover. Whatever buttons he chooses to push will need to get Toronto at least a sniff of important September baseball, if not a chance to hear the music in October.
Another season watching the finest baseball has to offer from the sidelines and it could be Anthopoulos who finds his name on a press release for all the wrong reasons.