CHICAGO – Fearless collisions with outfield fences at high speeds have become routine for Kevin Pillar over the past few seasons, but his leap into the ivy and the brick behind it at Wrigley Field represented a new level of danger for the Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder.
Kris Bryant’s smash in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Chicago Cubs took Pillar right to the wall in centre and he had to leap at full extension to reel the ball in. As he began to descend, his right arm and right knee braced his impact through the layer of leaves into the brick before he bounced off and tumbled to the ground.
Incredibly, he kept the ball in his glove and – after walking around gingerly for a few moments – continued as if nothing had happened.
“I think it’s just something that I’ve learned over time by playing other sports, just how to brace for contact,” Pillar says. “When you know you’re about to hit something that’s not going to move, you know how to just let your body go and absorb the blow, as opposed to trying to tense up and take all of the impact on your shoulder. You just make the play and whatever happens after that happens.
“You kind of just let the blow absorb through your whole body. You get up and continue to play. My body feels good. It’s a good time for an off-day, but my body feels good.”
Leaping catches into the brick wall are, for obvious reasons, relatively rare at Wrigley Field, which is what made Pillar’s catch all the more memorable. As manager John Gibbons noted, “That’s not necessarily a wall you’d want to take on. He’s never played here, now he can put that one on his wall, too.”
The thought of leaving a mark at Wrigley appealed to Pillar, who collected six hits over a strong three games, including the go-ahead RBI single in the 10th inning Sunday that looked like it would carry his team to victory.
“It was definitely something when the schedule came out I was excited to get an opportunity to come here and play them,” he says. “With them winning the World Series last year makes it even more special. It was just an amazing weekend for me, personally, being able to go out there and play the way I feel like I should play every day, and to be able to do it in front of a lot of fans that travelled a long way, and in front of my family that made the trip out here is something I’ll always remember.”
OPTION GAMES: There is a bigger picture to consider as the Blue Jays decide when to bring back right-hander Joe Biagini from triple-A Buffalo and re-insert him into their starting rotation.
The right-hander has been in the minors on option since Aug. 4, and if he spends 20 days with the Bisons his free agency would be pushed back another year, giving the team an additional season of control.
Wednesday would be his 20th day, which means decision time is imminent.
Pushing back Biagini’s free agency from after the 2021 season to after the 2022 season would be an unjust reward for a pitcher who stretched himself out on the fly earlier this year, and accepted a demotion earlier this month to stretch out again.
The Blue Jays have discussed bringing Biagini up to start this week, perhaps Friday in the series opener against the Minnesota Twins. But recently acquired right-hander Tom Koehler is expected to join the club in Tampa for Tuesday’s opener against the Rays and he could fit in as either a starter or reliever.
Biagini threw four shutout innings, allowing two hits and three walks with four strikeouts, while logging 73 pitches in Buffalo’s 4-1 win Thursday over Indianapolis. It was his third start with the Bisons.
The deal, on July 8, 2008, came not long after the rival Milwaukee Brewers picked up CC Sabathia from Cleveland, and also landed the Cubs reliever Chad Gaudin, who spent some time with the Blue Jays. Donaldson, a first-round pick, 48th overall in 2007, was a secondary piece in the trade, with Sean Gallagher the package headliner for the Athletics.
That bit of history made playing at Wrigley for the first time over the weekend particularly special for Donaldson.
“It’s the team that drafted me and the first team that traded me,” he says. “I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time here. The day before I was actually traded, we were supposed to play at Wrigley, the Cubs low-A team versus the A’s low-A team.”
Donaldson was a catcher when the Cubs drafted him and that’s where he stayed until 2012, when a move to third base helped propel him to the majors with Oakland, blossoming into an all-star and MVP.
“I probably wouldn’t be in the big leagues if I stayed with the Cubs the way that things were going there,” says Donaldson. “I’m very thankful for the opportunities that happened throughout my career, the instances where I’ve been traded and given opportunities so I don’t really look back at what if. But it’s nice to finally go back and play (at Wrigley).”
CANADIAN INVASION: Hordes of Blue Jays fans are a common sight at every road city the team plays in, but the strong showing over the weekend at Wrigley Field was a big topic of conversation among the locals. Estimates from stadium employees put the Canadian presence at roughly 25 per cent of the weekend’s total gate of 124,831.
One stadium employee said he’d never heard chants for the visiting team as loud as the “Let’s go Blue Jays,” that reverberated around the friendly confines, while another compared it to the way Cubs fans invade Miller Park in Milwaukee.
“It was a lot of fun being out there having as many fans as we did,” says Marco Estrada. “You don’t really see the visiting team having as many fans as the home team, especially at a place like this. They just won the World Series and for our fans to take over half the stadium is pretty cool.
“Just wish we would have come up with wins for them. I know we play better when they’re behind us.”