TORONTO – Toronto Blue Jays reliever Anthony Bass was on the other side five years ago when Jose Bautista flipped his bat and the Rogers Centre shook, experiencing the unforgettable 2015 American League Division Series through a Texas Rangers lens.
The striking variance in personality and outlook between the clubs is partly why those five games were played with such a volatile intensity, the ferocity of competition leaving behind an emotional vortex that even five years later remains.
“That’s the most electric atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of,” says Bass, a long reliever for the Rangers that season, who was left off the playoff roster but remained with the club as part of a taxi squad.
“Everyone was in on every single pitch.”
In rewatching the drama this week on Sportsnet’s Blue Jays Rewind – Game 4 is Thursday with Game 5 Friday, both at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT – the way the animosity developed has been particularly compelling. The rancour began long before the deciding game’s dramatic seventh inning, capped off by Bautista’s bat flip and the benches clearing twice, with each provocation escalating tensions.
The animosity eventually came to a head the following season in a wild brawl that included Rougned Odor’s infamous punch on Bautista, a petty act of vengeance by a Rangers squad hell-bent on exacting a pound of flesh.
“You had two big-personality types on each team – Bautista and Odor,” says Bass. “Odor, he’s got a chip on his shoulder and he’s got a bit of a temper if you push him. Bautista, I feel like, is more showy and likes the attention a little bit, that’s what I viewed from our side. When he hit his home runs, it rubbed Odor the wrong way and he let the guys in the clubhouse know that he didn’t want to put up with that. I feel like that caused friction early on.”
The initial sparks came during Game 1, when Bautista homered off Keone Kela, a reliever with a capricious temperament, in the sixth inning, admiring his handy work for a moment after contact.
Things got even hotter in Game 2, with Mike Napoli flying into second baseman Ryan Goins with a very borderline slide in the 11th inning, before Kela and Josh Donaldson got into it in the 13th inning, leading both benches to clear.
After Donaldson struck out, Bautista worked a walk and had words for Kela on his way to first base, then a few more for Napoli once he reached the bag.
“He’s got a temper on him, too,” Bass says of Kela. “He’s got the scrappy mentality, he’s not scared of anyone, and with that combination of showing up the pitcher, if you want to call it that, and a pitcher that doesn’t put up with that, you’re going to have some words, benches clearing, clubhouse stuff.”
Amid the histrionics, the Rangers won the first two games in Toronto and returned home to Arlington with two chances to clinch the best-of-five. Instead, the Blue Jays took it to them in Games 3 and 4, setting the stage for the remarkable fifth game.
“We felt very confident we were going to advance,” says Bass. “I feel like that hurt us.”
The finale had lived up to the billing even before the bat flip, with Marcus Stroman and Cole Hamels engaged in a riveting duel. Edwin Encarnacion’s solo shot in the sixth inning had just tied the game 2-2 when things went cray cray in the seventh, with Aaron Sanchez on the mound, Shin-Soo Choo at the plate and Odor at third base and two out.
Sanchez’s 1-2 pitch came in high, and when Russell Martin went to throw the ball back, it struck Choo’s bat, allowing Odor to trot in.
Home-plate umpire Dale Scott immediately waved the run off, but after conferring with Rangers manager Jeff Banister and then the rest of the umpiring crew, he pointed the runner home to put Texas up 3-2, triggering bedlam at the dome.
“That was so bizarre,” says Bass, who watched the play unfold on a monitor beneath the elevated seating in the Rangers bullpen. “All of a sudden the ball is going by Martin and you’ve got Odor running down the line and Choo is in the batter’s box. He scores and I’m like, what just happened? I watched the replay and thought, ‘can you do that? Can he have the bat out like that and deflect the ball?’”
Under the obscure but relevant rule, the answer was yes: “… If the batter is standing in the batter’s box and he or his bat is stuck by the catcher’s throw back to the pitcher (or throw in attempting to retire a runner) and, in the umpire’s judgment, there is no intent on the part of the batter to interfere with the throw, the ball is alive and in play.”
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons came out to argue and protested the game, while the crowd of 49,742 began pelting the field with all kinds of debris.
“I saw everything flying into our bullpen and the field,” says Bass. “We were told immediately by security to back up and take cover.”
Eventually, order was restored and the game resumed, with Sanchez getting Choo swinging to the end the top half. Nine outs away from the American League Championship Series at that point, the Rangers appeared to be sitting pretty with Cole cruising and a strong bullpen featuring Kela, Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman and closer Shawn Tolleson ready to lock things down.
Things quickly veered off-script, with the bottom half playing out even more bizarrely as the Blue Jays loaded the bases on three consecutive errors – two by Elvis Andrus and another by Mitch Moreland on a catchable relay to the shortstop. Odor’s misread on a Donaldson flare tied the game up for Bautista, who did this to Dyson’s 1-1 fastball:
“The Blue Jays just fed off the errors and completely switched the momentum back to their side,” says Bass. “A dagger. It was tough to come back from that. It felt like that was the last inning of the game.”
As incredible as the home run in that moment was, it was to some degree overshadowed by Bautista’s epic bat flip. Dyson was so bothered by it that he exchanged words with Edwin Encarnacion, the next batter, causing the benches to clear. They did again later in the inning, too, underlying the tinderbox the entire situation had become.
Up 6-3, though, the Blue Jays locked things down to advance. The Rangers returned to the clubhouse shell-shocked.
“It was like a morgue,” recalls Bass. “Dead silence.”
That was in contrast to the revelry on the field, where the Blue Jays celebrated a comeback that made them just the sixth team to rally back from 2-0 down to win in a division series.
Bass wasn’t there for the epilogue in 2016, as he had signed with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and helped pitch them to a Japan Series championship. Bass was back in the Rangers organization in ’17, got himself on track with the Chicago Cubs the next year and pitched well in the Seattle Mariners bullpen last year, convincing the Blue Jays to claim him on waivers Oct. 29.
Five years ago, such a transition would have been hard to imagine.
“I didn’t really think of it,” says Bass. “I was more excited about how much the organization was happy to have me when they picked me up from Seattle. I more thought of that than 2015. That’s five years ago. It’s crazy how fast people come and go in this game.”
No one who played in the big leagues for the Blue Jays in 2015 remains with the organization. Those memories and feelings, though? Boy, do they ever linger.