TORONTO – The emotion of it all is what really gets you. Yes, there’s the pageantry, all the accompanying pomp and circumstance inherent to the post-season that amplifies the spectacle, but there’s a primal rawness to the competition that makes what happens on the field so compelling.
That’s why you have Adrian Beltre wiping away tears after his lower back tightened up and forced him out of the game in the third inning.
That’s why you have a crowd of 49,834 collectively holding its breath with Josh Donaldson laid out after taking a knee to the head breaking up a double play in the fourth inning, erupting with an M-V-P chant once he popped back up, and then gasping when Ezequiel Carrera hit for him the next frame.
Everything matters so damn much.
All of which made Thursday afternoon’s 5-3 loss to the Texas Rangers a harsh reintroduction to playoff baseball after two decades away for the Toronto Blue Jays, who got an un-ace-like performance from ace left-hander David Price, once again struggled against Yovani Gallardo and now find themselves needing a big pick-me-up from Marcus Stroman against Cole Hamels in Game 2 Friday afternoon.
Another reality of playoff baseball, especially in the division series, is that things happen quick.
“You always look forward to the days that Stro’s [Marcus Stroman] pitching,” said manager John Gibbons. “There’s something about him, he always rises to the occasion, so we feel really good. We’ve got our work cut out for us with Hamels, no doubt. We dropped the first one at home, it’s important we win at home. We did very good here all year. So yeah, [Friday] is a big game for us, but really the perfect guy going.”
Hamels will be looking to give the AL West champions a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series heading home to Arlington for Games 3 and, if necessary, 4, so, yeah, the pressure is on. The Blue Jays could at least breathe easier knowing Bautista will be ready to go, while Donaldson – who Gibbons said felt light-headed after playing defence in the fifth – cleared all concussion testing and will be re-evaluated Friday.
“I feel much better now, I did some rehab and treatment,” said Bautista. “Should be good to go.”
Price hadn’t pitched since Sept. 26, when he worked five innings, allowing five runs, four earned, in a 10-8 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Once the Blue Jays clinched the American League East last week in Baltimore, he decided to shut it down until the playoffs, since the games were of minimal importance.
Over and over the left-hander insisted the 11-day layoff between outings wouldn’t be a factor – he’s the first pitcher to sit 11 or more days before taking the ball in Game 1 of his team’s post-season opener since Red Ruffing in 1939 – but certainly that decision will be second-guessed now, whether it factored or not. Curiously, he threw 43 fastballs averaging 95 mph and didn’t get a single swing-and-miss, according to data posted by Brooks Baseball, well off his 12 per cent whiff rate.
But a bigger issue will continue to haunt him, as well, and that’s his now an 0-6 career mark with a 4.87 ERA in six post-season starts (his only playoff win came in relief). Four of those losses have come to the Rangers, although he pitched well against them in a win back in August and beat them in a Game 163 tiebreaker back in 2013.
“I know it’s there,” Price said of his post-season numbers. “Hopefully it comes in my next start, if not, then in my next one, or my next one. … I’ll get better.”
Rougned Odor, in particular, was a thorn in Price’s side, getting hit twice and ripping a solo shot.
A curveball pegged him to open the third, and he moved to second on Robinson Chirinos’ groundout and scored on a Delino DeShields single past Ryan Goins, who charged to second base for a planned pickoff throw from Martin only to see the ball scoot past him.
“It sucks, I mean what can you do?” said Goins. “It’s a play we’ve done all season, we’ve gotten outs multiple times on that play, it just so happened that the guy hit it where we weren’t, he did a good job.”
DeShields moved to second on a hit-and-run groundout by Shin-Soo Choo and scored on an RBI single by Beltre, who barely made it to first base and left the game once the inning was over. Broadcast cameras caught him wiping away tears during a conference with manager Jeff Banister and the training staff.
“We’ll know more tonight and also in the morning of where he’s at,” said Banister. “Obviously we want Adrian in the game – he’s the heart and soul of this ball club.”
The Blue Jays clawed back within one in the bottom of the fourth on Edwin Encarnacion’s infield RBI single, but the rally proved costly as Donaldson was dazed a batter earlier when he slid into a leaping Odor’s knee at second, similar to the play Justin Morneau suffered a concussion on sliding into John McDonald’s knee back in 2010.
Donaldson laid on the ground for a moment, spiking pulses at the dome, but then got up and ran off the field.
“That’s him being a good teammate, him understanding the situation of the game,” said Kevin Pillar. “Them getting two outs kind of kills whatever rally that we had going on there, and that’s the type of player that Josh is, he’s going to play hard, he’s going to put his body on the line for the good of the team.”
The MVP candidate played the top of the fifth, when Price again hit Odor to open the frame before Chirinos took him deep to open up a 4-1 lead, but Carrera hit in Donaldson’s spot in the bottom half, grounding out to second with Pillar, who ripped an RBI double earlier in the inning, standing at third base.
“He seemed fine,” Pillar said of Donaldson. “I came in here and talked to him, and naturally he was upset that he wasn’t able to finish the game.”
Bautista opened the sixth with a solo shot that again made it a one-run affair, but Price again failed to deliver a shutdown inning, Odor tagging him for a solo shot just over the wall in left field.
“We scored in the fourth, fifth and sixth and in two of those innings I gave up runs right back,” said Price. “You need those shutdown innings at this time of the year and I didn’t do that.”
The Blue Jays managed to get the tying run to the plate in the ninth after an Encarnacion leadoff single, but Sam Dyson, a Blue Jays fourth-round draft pick in 2010, recovered to lock down the inning and seal the Rangers victory, a nasty shock from the high of watching a 2015 American League East championship banner drop from the rafters before the game.
“There are a lot of emotions there,” said Pillar. “You look up there and understand that’s forever and you’re a part of that, so seeing the unveiling, just the energy in the building, very memorable, very emotional. Same with the game, you’ll always remember your first playoff game. … There’s definitely a different type of feeling knowing how hard you worked to get into this position.”
The hard part comes now.
“Every game’s vital really,” said Gibbons. “The thing we’ve got going for us is we’ve been resilient all year. We’ve lost some tough games and we don’t lose many in a row normally. So it will be a good bounce back day for us. Like I say we’re facing their ace [Friday], Hamels, that definitely won’t be easy, but we like the matchup and we’ll see. One thing I know about it us is we always seem to respond.”
With the realities of the playoffs at hand, there’s no time to waste.