Blue Jays rally around ‘missing piece’ Ezequiel Carrera

Edwin Encarnacion hits a walk-off three-run homer in the 11th, sending the Blue Jays to the ALDS for the second straight year.

TORONTO — Ezequiel Carrera stood in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, an empty bottle of champagne in one hand, an inflatable red parrot named ‘Eddie’ in the other.

Earlier Tuesday, in the first playoff start of his big-league career, the 29-year-old Venezuelan dropped a single in shallow centre field for his first-ever hit of the post-season, driving in Michael Saunders and tying up the wild-card game at two.

“This is the moment I waited for,” Carrera said of the biggest RBI of his career, grinning, wearing a champagne-soaked T-shirt and ski goggles. “Unbelievable.”

What the guy in the No. 9 spot in Toronto’s order did Tuesday may have been a little bit lost in the excitement of a 5-2 walk-off win over Baltimore. It’s understandable considering the series of events—Jose Bautista’s homer in his first at-bat, a fan tossing a drink at Hyun-soo Kim while he caught a fly ball, Marcus Stroman pitching a gem when many doubted whether he should start, Edwin Encarnacion hitting a three-run moon shot in the bottom of the 11th to send the Blue Jays to the ALDS. A lot happened on Tuesday.

But Carrera, who began this season as the Blue Jays’ fourth outfielder, was one of just two players to register more than one hit in Toronto’s first post-season game of 2016. The other was reigning AL MVP, Josh Donaldson.

“It’s funny, he’s the one missing piece we didn’t have before,” said first base coach Tim Leiper of their left fielder. “When he’s in there, he always makes something happen with his speed, his defence, the way he can bunt, the way he can steal bases. You maybe didn’t expect this from him at the start of the season, but when you get down to it, you see the games we’re playing right now, and everything’s close—you can’t not have him in there.

“We kinda rally around him.”

Justin Smoak seconds that: “[He’s] a guy that, honestly, we don’t really have in this lineup; a guy that can bunt guys over, a guy that can bunt for a hit, get on base. That’s something you need this time of year.”

Carrera is a quiet presence in the clubhouse, he speaks only Spanish with some teammates, like fellow Venezuelan Dioner Navarro, and he’s good friends Encarnacion. Ryan Goins calls Carrera and Encarnacion “the same guy” and says “they don’t say a lot to you guys” meaning the media, “but they’re great to have around.”

As Smoak puts it of the teammate they call ‘Z’ and ‘Zeke’: “He speaks more English than you think.”

Carrera didn’t do a whole lot of that on Tuesday, partly because he didn’t have to. While beer and champagne sprayed behind them in the clubhouse, centre fielder Kevin Pillar had an arm around Carrera. “This is my guy,” Pillar said. “I speak for him.”

The spokesman does a pretty good job, too.

“This guy shows up to work every day, doesn’t know when he’s going to be in the lineup. He’s been huge for us,” Pillar said. “When guys went down, he stepped up. He’s made the best of his opportunity. Down the stretch, we needed that extra spark plug when Devon [Travis] went down, he led off, he’s a second leadoff at the bottom of the order and he just stays ready. You never know what he’s going to do. He hits the opposite-field homer. He bunts. That’s a special player.”

Carrera, who had five playoff games on his resume before Tuesday but had never been in the starting lineup until the wild-card game, says he feels he turned a corner with his bat this year.

“Consistent,” he said. “Keep working every day, BP, the cage. For me it’s about preparation for the game.”

In September, when many a Blue Jay bat fell quiet, Carrera’s didn’t. He posted a .359 batting average, had nine runs, 14 hits and four walks in 39 plate appearances. Now, through one game in the playoffs, he’s hitting .500.

“That’s a great guy to have in those situations, contact guy that’s gonna put the ball in play,” Smoak said. “And, like he’s done over the past few weeks, he had a big game for us again today.”

Goins isn’t surprised to see Carrera playing this way. Back in 2014, when both spent time in the minors, Carrera was hitting .307 with Toledo. “I thought he would be a really good player in the big leagues,” Goins said. “Obviously this year he went from not playing every day to playing every day to not playing every day to playing every day again, and now getting to start in the wild-card game and contributing the way he does is unreal. You feel good for a guy like that.”

Carrera’s arbitration eligible at the end of this season, when he could get the first substantial raise of his career.

“I like it here,” he says of Toronto. “We’ll see what opportunity comes up. I’m gonna continue with these guys.”

Just before he, Encarnacion and Eddie the parrot are ushered off to a press conference, Carrera considered the highlight of his first-ever playoff start.

“Last inning,” he said. “Eddie. The crowd. It’s so, so good. I’m very, very happy right now.”

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