TORONTO – The first time the Toronto Blue Jays partied this month, right after clinching a wild-card berth on the final day of the regular season in Boston, manager John Gibbons stood before his players and shouted, “watch out for this team,” as the corks started flying.
Well, they’ve popped bottles twice more since then, vanquishing the Baltimore Orioles in the wild-card before knocking off the Texas Rangers in a stunning three-game sweep in the American League Division Series, capped by Sunday night’s wild 7-6 win in 10 innings.
In a rematch rife with emotional pulls after last year’s series ended with Jose Bautista’s bat flip and the May 15 season finale between the teams ending with Rougned Odor socking him in the jaw, the Blue Jays played it cool, clinically dismantling the AL West champions.
A 10-1 thrashing in the ALDS opener at Globe Life Park left the Rangers reeling and they never regained their equilibrium, despite much stronger efforts in Games 2 and 3. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have run off six straight victories since their season appeared to be on the brink following a 5-3 loss to the Red Sox on Sept. 30, looking like the team they can be when everything goes right.
Suddenly, everything is going right.
“I felt like this series was kind of an indicator of how our team is built,” said Russell Martin, whose groundball set the stage for Josh Donaldson to scamper home in the 10th with the winning run. “We’re resilient. We play good defence. Our pitching has been tremendous throughout the year, and in the small sample size I kind of felt like we touched on everything that we were able to accomplish all year. …
“So it’s just nice to have a team that goes out there and battles, guys that play hurt. Guys play banged up – no excuses. Just really proud of this team and the way we handle ourselves. And obviously with the circumstances against this team that we kind of had some bad blood against, I kind of felt it was good baseball being played, and we kind of put our emotions aside and played good baseball.”
That they did, and if the Blue Jays savoured the first post-season sweep in franchise history a little more because of the revenge factor, well they weren’t saying. More pivotal is the extra rest they get now before the American League Championship Series opens next Friday either in Cleveland or Boston.
The Indians – the former team of Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins, are up 2-0 on the Red Sox with Game 3, postponed by rain Sunday, set for Monday at Fenway Park. Ten minutes after the game ended, Shapiro sent Indians president, baseball operations Chris Antonetti a two-word text: “Your turn.”
“I’m pulling for Cleveland up until the moment they play us,” said Shapiro. “That would be really cool.”
So if you’re a fan of narrative, well there could be plenty more to come in a playoff run that has already been rife with it, with the Blue Jays eliminating two of the game’s most tsk-tsking, righteous arbiters of the right-way-to-play in Baltimore and Texas.
No bats were flipped in the making of this sweep.
“The best way that I know to handle it is just to go out there, put your egos in check. Your team comes first,” Donaldson said of exacting some revenge. “If you let all that other stuff kind of distract you and get into your head, it’s going to somehow affect your game, probably not in a positive manner. I brushed it off and, honestly, I turned the page from it after we left there. And I just wanted to go out there and play good, clean baseball. And I felt like both teams were able to do that.
“And fortunately for us we were able to win the series as well.”
Donaldson, struggling through a hip issue for nearly a month, is among those who can use the rest most, although closer Roberto Osuna, who threw two shutout innings in his fourth multi-inning appearance in five outings this month, heads up a long list right behind him.
The reigning American League MVP started the rally in the 10th with a leadoff double off Matt Bush, who was sitting 97 and touching 99 in his third inning of work. The Rangers decided to then walk Edwin Encarnacion – no sense in giving him a chance to walk-off another post-season game – and Bush then struck out Bautista on a chase heater high and away.
Up came Martin who rolled over a 98 mph 3-2 heater that Elvis Andrus ranged to his right to fetch and relayed to second for the force on Encarnacion, who slid hard but clean. Odor then pulled his throw a little to the right of Mitch Moreland, who had to come off the bag and couldn’t corral the throw.
That’s when Donaldson broke for home, beating a throw from Moreland comfortably.
“When you have 50,000 fans screaming it kind of numbs the pain a little bit, it gives you that little extra jolt of adrenalin,” said Donaldson. “I’m going to leave it at that. I don’t really want to be too specific about anything. But the fact of the matter is I want to be out there for my team, and my teammates want me out there and I want to try to contribute in any way possible. And for the most part I’ve been able to do that.”
Donaldson’s slide home triggered jubilation among the crowd of 49,555 and set off celebrations at home plate where the third baseman scored and down the line in right field where Martin had reached. In a desperation attempt to extend his team’s season, Rangers manager Jeff Banister challenged whether Donaldson had touched home and whether Encarnacion had slid within the rules.
Both were fine, leading to a second celebration as the Rangers sat in the dugout and stared, faces long.
“Anticlimactic is the word. You’re kind of just waiting. Celebrate, we think we won, and then they challenge the play and you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, let’s not have a technicality kind of ruin this moment for us right here,’” said Martin. “And it didn’t (thankfully). But it was a little bit of a buzz kill at the time.”
Added Donaldson: “You start going through the memories of how (replay) has affected you in the past. I looked at Eddie, I said, ‘Please tell me you had a good slide. If you don’t have a good slide this isn’t good. We are not cool right now if you did not have a good slide.’ But fortunately it was good, Eddie had a good slide right there and we were able to win the game.”
Encarnacion who insisted he wasn’t worried for a second – “I knew it was a clean play and I was sure it was a clean play,” he said – pointed to Donaldson’s daring with appreciation.
“When you see Josh Donaldson, MVP player, play the game the way he plays, that’s why we’re winning games,” he said.
Atkins was also full of praise for Donaldson’s decision-making, saying, “I love it, I love guys not fearing mistakes – that’s how you win.”
The late drama came after the Blue Jays jumped out to a 5-2 lead and looked set to waltz into the ALCS.
Encarnacion crushed an 0-1 Colby Lewis slider into the second deck for a two-run homer in the bottom of the first, and Martin turned on another slider a batter later to open up a 3-1 lead.
They extended the advantage to 5-2 in the bottom of the third when Ezequiel Carrera led off with a single, stole second and scored on Donaldson’s ground-rule double. That was it for Lewis and Encarnacion promptly followed with an RBI single up the middle off Tony Barnette.
“We’ve been able to hit the homer, and that’s a big positive for our offence, because there are times when we rely on that, because we don’t have a lot of guys in our lineup that are speed-oriented and that are going to really take advantage of a lot of extra bases,” said Donaldson. “That’s not how we’re really built. But we are built to hit the long ball and we were able to do that this series. And it’s going to be important for us throughout the entire way.”
But with Aaron Sanchez too strong, that comfortable lead didn’t last long. In the fourth, Rougned Odor turned on an outside 96 mph fastball that wasn’t up enough for a two-run shot that made it a one-run game.
Then in the sixth, Sanchez issued a two-out walk to Odor and Jonathon Lucroy followed with a single that ended the right-hander’s night. Manager John Gibbons faced a choice between Joe Biagini versus Moreland or Brett Cecil versus Ryan Rua, who would have come in to hit, and opted for the former. Moreland than delivered a two-run double that went off the tip of a diving Kevin Pillar’s glove, putting the Rangers up 6-5.
“They’ve got such a good team, you knew they weren’t going to go down without fighting, that’s for sure,” Gibbons said of the Rangers. “They scored and it was key I think when we bounced back got on the board and was back and forth.”
Sanchez, so dominant a week ago in Boston to help the Blue Jays clinch a wild-card berth, allowing six runs on three hits and four walks with five strikeouts.
“In a game like this you try to keep your emotions in check, as hard as it is to do,” said Sanchez. “I felt like all night I was overamped, I knew what this game meant, with a 2-0 lead, and last year being down 0-2 and knowing that anything can happen at this point of the year. I’m glad I worked through what I had to through and gave our team a chance to win.”
The Rogers Centre shook when home plate umpire Sam Holbrook signalled that Donaldson was safe. The post-season games at the dome each produced another signature moment for the franchise’s playoff pantheon, and the noise the fans make gain notice.
One rival executive said as recently as early last season, he didn’t feel the Blue Jays had any sort of distinct home-field advantage, a perception that’s changed dramatically. He now believes the Blue Jays derive a real benefit from playing in front of their fans.
Odor was a target of their ire the way Bautista was booed in Texas.
“I’ve played in front of crowds like this in my country. We have really good fans there,” said the Venezuelan. “I’ve been in this situation before.”
Osuna, meanwhile, kept them roaring with by going six-up, six-down in the ninth and 10th, setting the stage for Donaldson’s mad scamper home. He left Tuesday’s wild-card game with shoulder tightness but returned to throw 3.2 innings in the ALDS.
“Courage,” said Atkins. “He loves to compete, man. He wanted the ball. There was no doubt about that.”
The Blue Jays poured out of the clubhouse after their initial champagne splashes to celebrate with the crowd, the way they did a year ago.
One theory on what happened to the Rangers is that they lost some edge during their down time waiting for either the Blue Jays or the Orioles.
Shapiro took note of that.
“With the nature of our team, a veteran team in general, some of our position players can use that time well, also,” he said. “It’s going to be a good thing for us but it’s a double-edged sword, too, as you’ve seen. These guys (Rangers), I thought, came out a little bit flat because of their three-day layoff. It’s something that we’re going to have to be creative. We’ll take advantage of the next couple of days, we’ll have a good Thanksgiving (Monday), and then we’ll get back at it and get ready to play.”
Martin on the other hand, isn’t buying it.
“You can spin it however you want,” he said. “Some people like to say a couple of days off might throw our timing off. I really don’t believe in that. At this point in the year a couple days off can do wonders. So for our bullpen, our pitching, get everybody’s arm fresh. And the same thing for guys who are banged up. A couple of days can go a long way in this game it seems like.”
Regardless, the Blue Jays have been to the brink and now they’re back, believing in themselves, embracing the opportunity before them.
“Everybody’s been battle-tested on this team, we have a great mix of veterans with young players that are really talented and the young guys see our lead and feed off of us,” said Bautista. “Nobody here gets worried in whatever situation we might be in. We were down 0-2 last year in the same series and we were able to come back. This year we just played better games early on in the series. We’ve got to continue to do that. …
“I don’t think you’ve seen what we can really do yet (offensively). We showed what we could do last year, that’s not what we’re doing yet. Hopefully we can continue to keep having good at-bats and keep getting runs on the board no matter how we do it.”
If they do, there may be more champagne popping to come.