TORONTO – Edwin Encarnacion sat solemnly in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout, soaked in his surroundings and willed himself not to think about the possibility. The sting of a costly 4-0 loss to the Baltimore Orioles was setting in, and the home wild-card berth that seemed all but assured only a couple of days ago is suddenly far from certain. Under the circumstances, wondering if he’d just played his final home game at Rogers Centre would be understandable.
"I was just thinking about the game we lost," he says quietly during an interview by his locker afterwards. "I want to come back here again, one more time, I don’t want to leave here like that. I want to come back here to the playoffs and give everything I’ve got to the fans."
How things play out this weekend during a season-ending series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park will go a long way in determining whether Encarnacion, who along with Jose Bautista will be among the most coveted free agents to hit the market, gets that chance. Thursday’s setback, on the heels of Wednesday night’s gutting 3-2 loss on Hyun Soo Kim’s homer in the ninth, further bunched up the wild-card standings, and opened the door to multiple scenarios.
The Blue Jays are now tied with the Orioles for the wild-card lead and have lost three of four since taking three straight from the New York Yankees, who host Baltimore this weekend. They’ll need to play their best series of the month against the Red Sox, who are two games behind the Texas Rangers for best record in the American League.
The time to step up is now.
"It’s tough the games we lost the last two days, these are very important games for us, but it’s part of the game," says Encarnacion. "We have to keep our heads up and keep doing the best things we can do to help the team win games. … We know what we have to do for where we want to go. Everybody here has a lot of experience. We need to turn things around to be where we want to be."
Encarnacion, of course, made it clear in the spring that longer term, Toronto is where he wanted to be, but extension talks never got off the ground as the Blue Jays are believed to have suggested a two-year deal plus an option.
That was never going to fly, and once the season began, Encarnacion shut the door on further discussions so he could lock in on the field. He’s definitely done that, matching a career high with 42 homers while establishing a new best with 127 RBIs. His 83 walks are two short of another career best.
Given that he’s been one of the game’s dominant offensive players since 2012, with 193 homers, 550 RBIs and a .914 OPS during that span, he’s sitting on a very substantial payday some in the industry expect will reach nine figures.
Still, with only Games No. 160-162 remaining and no post-season action secured just yet, it’s been an uneasy time for the 33-year-old slugger.
"Sometimes when you start thinking it’s tough because I’ve been here for (eight) years and I don’t know where I’m going to be next year," says Encarnacion. "It’s a very emotional thing and it’s a very tough moment for me."
Encarnacion did his part to make things happen Thursday, hitting a fly ball in the first to advance Ezequiel Carrera to third with less than two outs, where he was stranded. In the sixth he walked to extend the inning, bringing up Bautista, who drove a ball deep to right centre but didn’t get quite enough of it. Then in the ninth, Encarnacion ripped a one-out double, advanced to third on a balk and was left there.
Once Russell Martin grounded out to end the game, he made his way to the dugout, took a moment to himself, surveying the scene, acknowledging some fans and refusing to think it might have been the end in Toronto.
"That’s what it’s all about, going to the playoffs," says Encarnacion. "We’ve been in good position to be in that situation and it’s tough to lose in the last week. We have to do whatever it takes to win games because I want to come back here again."