TORONTO — Edwin Encarnacion stood at his locker in a t-shirt, shorts and red sneakers, beads of game sweat still dotting his forehead, unwrapping the tape from his fingers and staring down at a translucent garbage bag full of hats.
Dozens and dozens of lids, most Blue Jays blue, that had rained down upon the Rogers Centre turf Saturday following Encarnacion’s third home run of the game—a seventh-inning grand slam—in a 15-1 flattening of the Detroit Tigers. The hats caused a five-minute delay as blue-shirted stadium employees scampered around the field collecting them all, shortly after Encarnacion received a rare Toronto curtain call from the 46,444 delirious fans on hand.
“It was crazy. I’ve never seen something like that in baseball. I really enjoyed the moment,” Encarnacion said. “I didn’t know what it was about, and then [Dioner] Navarro told me in hockey when somebody scores three goals, everybody throws their hat. I guess they do in baseball now, too.”
Encarnacion says he wants to sign the hats and return them to their rightful owners, and who knows how he’ll go about accomplishing that. But with the way the Blue Jays continue to one-up themselves over the course of this truly special, extraordinary season—is there anything you doubt they can do?
The team has now won 23 of it’s last 28 games, the latest a 15-run, 18-hit ravaging of a Tigers pitching staff that isn’t necessarily good, but certainly isn’t the batting practice fodder they looked like against the Blue Jays’ offence. It was the 21st time this season the Blue Jays have scored more than 10 runs, which is a club record and the most in the majors by a mile (the Texas Rangers are second with 12).
“I look back on the five months we’ve already played, and to score as many runs as we have and to have the big, big innings like we've had at this level, it surprises the hell out of me, to be honest with you,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “It doesn't happen that often up here, and we've done it so many times. I can't say you start expecting it, but you feel like you're never out of a game unless it's really lopsided. “
Encarnacion got the show started early, taking a 79-mph hanging curveball from Tigers starter Buck Farmer deep to left field for a three-run shot in the first, extending his major-league-best hitting streak to 24 games in the process. He eventually added two more long balls, driving in nine runs in total, and is now just four games shy of tying Shawn Green’s franchise-record hitting streak of 28 games set in 1999. Over the nearly month-long course of his streak, Encarnacion is batting .400/.462/.856, which looks like a typo but isn’t.
“He's some kind of locked in,” Gibbons said. “When he gets it going, there's nobody better, nobody more dangerous. He's smoking right now.”
Of course, there were other contributors for the Blue Jays, but as has been a theme of the team’s season, there was simply too much offence to summarily document. But it should be noted that Josh Donaldson had three hits and drove in a pair, as he does, and Justin Smoak reached base four times, while Ryan Goins recorded three hits and Ben Revere tallied four more, giving him 18 in his last nine games.
And then there was the Blue Jays starter, Drew Hutchison. It has been a long, trying, inconsistent season for the young right-hander, who was at one point the Blue Jays opening-day starter and last week a Buffalo Bison. From start-to-start—and sometimes inning-to-inning—Hutchison’s performance has been impossible to predict.
But if Hutchison’s last three outings—all quality starts against good offences, including seven strong innings of work against the Tigers Saturday afternoon—prove to be a sign of things to come, a sign that Hutchison has turned the corner, then the AL East-leading Blue Jays may have just gotten that much better.
“I think I’ve been throwing the ball really well lately,” Hutchison said. “I’ve been able to locate the fastball and everything’s come off of that. I just want to make good pitches. I got into a few deep counts today but I think that was more of a credit to their offence. Those guys are a really good hitting team.”
Hutchison, of course, was deemed unnecessary during Toronto’s recent off-day-laden road trip and sent to triple-A Buffalo in order to stay fresh while the team shrunk its rotation to just four starters. His north-of-5.00 ERA warranted the move, but it couldn’t have been an easy pill to swallow, especially for a pitcher who came into the season with high expectations of building on a strong back-half of 2014, and one who surely can’t help but notice the looming thunder of a healthy Marcus Stroman, who will make two rehab starts next week.
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But on Saturday Hutchison pitched like a guy who wants to stick around as long as this team does in 2015, scattering six hits (all singles) over his seven frames while allowing the Tigers to score just one run, which likely never would have occurred if not for Jose Bautista losing a routine fly ball in the sun during the third inning. Hutchison held the dangerous heart of the Tigers’ order—Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez—to just a single in 9 plate appearances, and retired 10 of the final 11 batters he faced.
“Obviously, I wanted to make that start on the road and I wasn’t given that opportunity,” Hutchison said. “But I was given the ball today and I was able to show what I could do with it.”
Of course, there was something familiar about this outing for Hutchison—when he was in the dugout, his teammates made an awful lot of noise. Hutchison has enjoyed an average of 6.28 runs of support in his 24 starts this season, and that number grew on Saturday as the Blue Jays’ offence feasted on yet another inexperienced, overmatched starting pitcher.
“You can’t go out there and expect that,” Hutchison said. “But if you give up a few runs early you obviously know what we’re capable of.”
The other thing that tends to happen during Hutchison’s starts is the Blue Jays win. After Saturday’s triumph, Toronto is now 18-7 in his outings and has won 12 of the last 14 times he’s taken the mound.
“In my two years with him I've seen nothing but good, really,” Gibbons said.” He's like anybody else, they have their struggles. They're not good every time they go out there. But the kid's got that knack. He's a great competitor. He's still a young guy, He's still figuring it out. He's only going to get better. And that can take you a long way.”
Winning, in general, has been a familiar feeling for the world-beating Blue Jays since the trade deadline, as the team is now 20-5 in August and inching towards making a postseason berth less of a possibility, and more of an eventuality. For a player like Encarnacion, who’s been a Blue Jay for seven years, never once getting close to October baseball, it’s a hell of a time to be alive.
“Guys like me and Jose [Bautista,] we’ve been here for years, and we’ve never been in this position,” he said, giant bag of hats sitting at his feet. “We enjoy it. We enjoy every moment. This is where we’ve wanted to be for a long time—to be in late August, early September, and in first place. We’re going to continue to do the best we can do to get to where we want to go—to the playoffs.”