TORONTO – Much like series victories over the Tampa Bay Rays in recent years, late game comebacks have been few and far between for the Toronto Blue Jays this year.
Prior to Wednesday evening, only twice in 24 games had they successfully rallied in a game when trailing after seven innings, so things didn’t look good for them once the visitors scratched out a go-ahead run off Casey Janssen in the ninth inning.
But Jose Bautista greeted Fernando Rodney with his second home run of the game to knot things up in the bottom of the frame, and then capped a monster performance with a single in the 10th that sealed a 4-3 victory that also clinched a series win over the Rays.
The all-star right-fielder was mobbed in the infield by his teammates immediately afterwards.
"Any time you have a walkoff win it's exciting," Bautista said. "It's a rubber game, it was pretty important to us, a division game against a team we haven't won a series against in a long time."
Colby Rasmus opened the 10th with an infield single off Cesar Ramos, advanced to second on Emilio Bonifacio's sacrifice bunt, took third on Munenori Kawasaki's groundout, and after a Mark DeRosa walk, scored on Bautista's fourth hit of the night.
Bautista cashed in Anthony Gose's leadoff double in the first, tied the game up 2-2 in the fourth off Jeremy Hellickson, walked in the sixth and then homered again in the ninth before winning it in the 10th. With his two home runs, giving him 11 for the season, he moved past Lloyd Moseby into sixth on the club's all-time home run list at 151.
"He's pretty good," manager John Gibbons said. "He's one of the elite players in the game, one of the top hitters, he definitely carried us today, no question about that offensively."
GO WITH IT: Jose Bautista has seen a steady diet of defensive shifts to his pull side from opponents this month, but given how many hits he's collected to right field over the past three weeks they may want to reconsider the strategy.
Since April 30, 10 of Bautista's 24 hits have been to the right side, including both his RBI singles Wednesday plus another Tuesday night against the Rays.
His power remains to left field - 10 of his 11 homers have been to left, the other to centre - but he's been opportunistic when the time's been right.
"I'm not trying to hit the ball that way, I'm just trying to let the ball travel," Bautista said. "Every hit I've gotten that way except for one (Tuesday) I haven't hit very well. I've been getting lucky on the placement more than anything."
Bautista was down in the count on both his singles Wednesday, and each time he recovered with a clever piece of hitting against the shift.
"If I get behind in the count and the game situation warrants it, maybe I just let the ball travel," he said. "It's not that I'm trying to hit that hole (created by the shift), that's not what I'm getting paid to do and that's not my approach at the plate."
The key for pull hitters trying to go the other way is to do it without coming out of their swing. Bautista was certainly fine on that front, given he went deep twice, too.
"All the great hitters will do that, they pick up their extra RBIs that way," manager John Gibbons praised. "They stack them up quick on the home runs and gap shots, but when they pitch you tough, they pitch you a lot of times away, you take the pitch out that way. That's how you have those big, big years.
"He's beat the shift a few times lately as well doing that, but he's not just a slugger, he's a complete hitter. That was clutch. He fell behind in the count and shortened it up instead of just pulling it."
JANSSEN JUMPED: Casey Janssen has given up runs in consecutive outings for the first time this year, as Evan Longoria poked a one-out double to right in the ninth inning and then came around with the go-ahead run on a James Loney chopper up the middle that briefly put the Rays up 3-2.
Loney's single came on the eighth pitch of the at-bat.
On Monday, Janssen gave up two runs in the ninth inning on a Yunel Escobar homer in a 7-5 win, ending a run of nine straight scoreless appearances. It was just the second time he'd been scored on this year.
Thankfully for him, Rays closer Fernando Rodney blew his fourth save of the season.
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Blue Jays (19-27) earned their first series win against the Rays (24-22) since a three-game sweep at home Aug. 6-8, 2010 before a Rogers Centre crowd of 18,771. It was also their fourth series victory overall this season.
The Baltimore Orioles check in Thursday night for the first of a four-game set. They took two of three from the Blue Jays at Camden Yards last month.
"We didn't have a great trip to New York, so coming back and winning the next series right away is big," Jose Bautista said. "We're ready to go with some momentum against the Orioles, we've just got to keep the energy up and hope for the best."
BRILLIANT BUEHRLE: Mark Buehrle is still winless since April 15, but he's been pitching better of late and certainly deserved better in this one after allowing just two runs on four hits and two walks in seven innings.
The left-hander struck out six and should have been out of the only jam that cost him, as Maicer Izturis unwisely tried a bare-hand scoop of Ryan Roberts' weak dribbler to second, had it roll under his hand, allowing Jose Molina to score all the way from second.
Ben Zobrist followed with an RBI single, that put the Rays up 2-1.
Still, the damage against him ended there, as he proceeded to match zeroes with Jeremy Hellickson for the rest of his outing.
"Today I felt good, the one thing I wish I had was a little bit better control of my fastball early in the count," he said. "I threw some sinkers that were up in the zone, I wish I could have gotten them down and locate a little bit better, but I'll take that outing every day, obviously."
Buehrle took a Desmond Jennings comebacker off his left fingertips and knee in the fifth inning, pouncing on the ball for the out. He got a visit from trainer George Poulis but was no worse for the wear.
"I've always wanted if I have a chance like that to throw a pitch to the backstop, just one pitch, and then say I'm fine, that way the first pitch of the next at-bat the hitter might be freaked out," Buehrle said. "I even said to George when he came out, 'Hey, this is the time I need to throw it halfway up the backstop.' I couldn't do it.
"The ball got my bottom two fingers a little bit, it just tingled, and the knee is fine. I do whatever I can to try and stop the ball."
RISKY RUNNING: Jose Bautista rolled the dice twice on the bases, coming up short one time, catching a break on the other.
In the first he decided to tag from first base on Edwin Encarnacion's fly ball to deep left, but Kelly Johnson threw a strike to Ben Zobrist, who applied the tag for a double play that drained momentum from a first-inning rally.
Then in the sixth, Bautista was on first and Jeremy Hellickson was holding the ball when he broke for second before the right-hander started his motion toward the plate. Caught off guard, he threw to shortstop Yunel Escobar at second but Bautista kicked the ball loose on his slide for the stolen base.
Adam Lind, the next batter, couldn't cash him in.
STRAYING TOO FAR: J.P. Arencibia erased Sean Rodriguez's leadoff double in the fourth when the right-fielder strayed too far taking his secondary lead and was thrown out by the Blue Jays catcher.
It was Arencibia's first catcher pickoff this season and just the second runner he's thrown out on the bases, having nailed one runner trying to steal against him in 19 attempts.
NOTES: Josh Johnson will make his next rehab start Saturday with triple-A Buffalo against Indianapolis. … Anthony Gose started in left field in place of Melky Cabrera so he can rest his sore legs. Cabrera did pinch-hit in the eighth, striking out. … Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said the team remains undecided about its starter for Friday. The team may be leaning toward left-handed prospect Sean Nolin, although right-hander Chad Jenkins is also in the mix.