Blue Jays-Royals’ 2015 rivalry started with litmus-test series at deadline

Blue Jays reporter Hazel Mae joins Lead Off on the morning of what was supposed to be opening day for the club, to discuss what she was most looking forward to.

TORONTO – In the aftermath of an emotionally charged game mere days after a rousing trade-deadline buildup, Josh Donaldson dropped a line that fully encapsulated the abrasive swagger so indelible to the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.

The all-star third baseman was in the middle of the histrionics during a 5-2 win over the Kansas City Royals that Aug. 2. He was plunked by the incendiary Edinson Volquez in the first inning, buzzed twice more in subsequent at-bats and got in home-plate umpire Jim Wolf’s face when Troy Tulowitzki was hit later in the game, shortly before the benches cleared.

Donaldson’s frustrations were directed as much at Wolf as at the Royals after the umpire warned both teams in the first, and he couldn’t understand why no one was ejected until the eighth, when Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar.

Not, he paused to make clear, that he was advocating for Volquez’s ejection.

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“I thought he was pretty good hitting, so I don’t want him out of there,” Donaldson said dismissively before making his primary point. “When you give a warning like that and you see balls continually thrown around the head area and then a ball that hits Tulowitzki in the chest, pretty much, it’s one of those things where you can’t question intent any more. There has to be repercussions for you giving a warning at the beginning of the game. I think that’s where he went wrong at it.”

That’s some peak JD and vintage 2015 Blue Jays swag, getting after opponents, umpires and anyone else who gave them a cross look, which is what made the club such a total trip.

Drama trailed the Blue Jays like a shadow that year, amplified by the deadline adds of Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, David Price, Ben Revere and Mark Lowe, and the July 30-Aug. 2 four-game series with the Royals in Toronto offered an immediate litmus test.

In the hours after acquiring Price, the Blue Jays took the opener 5-2 and then prevailed 7-6 in 11 innings the next night in Johnny Cueto’s debut for Kansas City. The Royals rallied to take the third game 7-6 — started by the late Yordano Ventura, who in short order would attack Jose Bautista as “a nobody” on Twitter — heating things up for the fateful finale, which is airing on Blue Jays rewind Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.

Volquez turned things up a notch when he hit Donaldson in the upper arm, and why Wolf immediately issued a warning only he knows. If he felt Volquez’s act was intentional, then under baseball’s unwritten rules, he should have allowed the Blue Jays to exact some payback and then demand both teams settle things down.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Instead, he infuriated the Blue Jays by tying their hands, and then not acting when Volquez missed with a changeup near Donaldson’s face, or when Ryan Madson hit Tulowitzki and then brushed back Donaldson.

The Royals argued afterwards that their scouting reports said they had to pitch the Blue Jays in to keep them off the plate, and that there was nothing to complain about.

Or, as Volquez put it when asked about Donaldson’s reaction: “He’s a little baby. He was crying like a baby. … He got mad at everybody like he was Barry Bonds. He’s not Barry Bonds. He’s got three years in the league.”

Wolf didn’t act until the eighth, when Sanchez hit Escobar in the leg, delaying for a moment before tossing the young righty. At that point the benches cleared, Volquez ran around like a madman in one of those eye-wash tough guy moments, and a rivalry that would play out in the American League Championship Series was born.

“I thought Jim Wolf did a tremendous job understanding the game, understanding what’s intentional,” Royals manager Ned Yost said afterwards. “Was it intentional on their part to hit (Escobar)? Absolutely. They miss him with the first one then came back and hit him again with the second one. I think Jim Wolf did a great job of understanding what was intentional and what wasn’t.”

The next day Bautista begged to differ.

“I just thought it was a ridiculous comment to say he thought it was one of the best-officiated games he’s ever seen,” replied the right-fielder. “I just don’t know how you can say, one, that you believe that was one of the best-officiated games that you’ve ever seen and, two, that you know exactly everybody’s intent on the pitches that were thrown close to batters. I don’t know if he’s got a mind-reading device that I haven’t heard about. I just don’t know how he can say that. But he did say it.”

Bautista’s take on Wolf’s work was decidedly different.

“Everything was somewhat blown out of proportion because of what I believe was the mishandling of the situation by the umpires. I think the warning was put in too early,” he countered. “After the warning’s put on, you’ve got to respect it, right? I have a big problem when an umpire can say they know 100 per cent in their mind the intent of a particular pitch after a warning’s put on. For a fastball to hit Tulowitzki after a warning’s put on, you’re supposed to respect the warning. I don’t care how many strikes there are. I think the mishandling of the whole situation is what took things to a different level. I think people need to let the game be played.”

Interventionist umpiring or not, the games were heated, with John Gibbons describing the series finale, as well as the three games previous, the closest thing to playoff baseball he’d seen to that point as Blue Jays manager.

“There was just great intensity,” said Gibbons, who was ejected before the brawl in the finale. “They’re the top team in the league. They play that brand of baseball, anyway. It’s high intensity. And there was excitement from our fans. You could definitely feel that. And they were those kinds of games, too. They were back and forth, tough games. It was fun to be a part of.”

The fun for that Blue Jays team was just getting started.

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