TORONTO – The signature moments you see in highlight videos, the kind that make people wistful, don’t come during the regular season. The grind of 162 can’t recreate the emotion and the meaning inherent to post-season baseball, something lost upon the Toronto Blue Jays during those 21 years when October belonged to others.
But this year, just like last, they’ve put their stamp on the playoffs. This time with Edwin Encarnacion providing the vivid demonstration of what it’s like to deliver when it really matters. A walk-off, three-run homer in the 11th inning that gave the Blue Jays a 5-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles and a trip back to the American League Division Series made the first wild-card game in franchise history a total trip.
Encarnacion pummelled just about the juiciest meatball imaginable from Blue Jays nemesis Ubaldo Jimenez to the second deck in left, threw his arms up, dropped his bat and walked the parrot before an elated crowd of 49,934. They chanted his name over and over in celebrating a drive destined for a place in franchise lore alongside Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Ed Sprague, and, of course, Jose Bautista.
This is October. This is how baseball’s other half has lived.
“It was very special moment,” said Encarnacion, who left Toronto last week hoping for another chance to play at home and made the most of it. “A very special opportunity for me to get it.”
By the way, that’s going to play well for him in free agency, too.
Bautista, also bound for the market, provided the iconic moment last fall with his Game 5 homer against the Texas Rangers, who the Blue Jays meet for a rematch in the next round starting Thursday in Arlington. Get ready for endless loops of his bat flip and Rougned Odor’s punch to his jaw from May’s brawl between the clubs in a series with some Hollywood plotlines thanks to their histrionic recent history.
The challenge for the Blue Jays will be knocking off the American League’s top team during the season after barely scratching their way to the wild-card game. An 11-16 September nearly wrecked them and a pair of weekend victories were needed to finish with 89 wins and a date with the Orioles, but perhaps that adversity was ideal preparation for the playoff grind.
“Having to play can’t-lose games in the last week, that can definitely help,” said Bautista, who went deep in the second inning to open the scoring. “Hopefully that keeps our edge a little above what Texas has been like, because Texas has been just hanging out, they knew they clinched early and they haven’t been playing those types of ballgames with a lot of pressure that they can’t lose, and we have.
“Hopefully we get that momentum and keep it and take it to the next series.”
Helpful on that front would be if the Blue Jays can get more of the pitching they threw at the Orioles versus the Rangers. Marcus Stroman performed like an ace amid the doubters. Francisco Liriano, the second option to start, made like Jimmy Key in post-seasons past and dominated out of the bullpen.
And Roberto Osuna delivered four key outs before causing his team a fright by walking off the field after a Chris Davis flyout with shoulder discomfort. He said a club doctor examined him and found no cause for concern, and he’s expected to be ready for the Rangers.
“You feel the nerves when you’re not playing so I was in the training room watching the game,” Osuna said of Encarnacion’s home run. “As soon as he hit the ball, I was like, that’s a homer right there, and I went out to celebrate with the guys.”
Also celebrating was Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, and give credit where it’s due, he managed his pitching perfectly, getting six frames from Stroman, navigating the seventh and eighth with Brett Cecil, Joe Biagini and Jason Grilli, before handing the reins over to Osuna. When Osuna had to come out of the game, he put the ball in Liriano’s hands and he sliced through the Orioles, ready to go three or four innings if needed.
Buck Showalter, meanwhile, lost the game without using his prime bullpen weapon, Zach Britton, surviving a ninth in which the Blue Jays put the first two men on before Bautista struck out against Brad Brach and Darren O’Day induced a double-play ball from Russell Martin. O’Day got through the 10th but things went off the rails in the 11th after Brian Duensing came in for Ezequiel Carrera and Jimenez reverted back to a dumpster fire.
“You knew he was down there and he’s been unbeatable this year,” Gibbons said of Britton. “[Having the last at-bat] worked for us.”
Up 1-0 thanks to Bautista’s solo shot on a 3-1 fastball from Orioles starter Chris Tillman, Stroman didn’t allow a batter to reach until Adam Jones’ leadoff single in the fourth. An out later, Manny Machado drove a ball to right centre that Kevin Pillar picked off the turf with a diving catch that brought the dome back to full roar.
But on the next pitch, Mark Trumbo turned on a first-pitch sinker down and in and hooked it over the wall in left to put the Orioles up 2-1. Stroman didn’t allow another run, working a clean sixth through the top of the order for a third time.
“I threw a lot more curveballs, cutters, I tried to mix more,” said Stroman, who allowed four runs over seven innings against the Orioles last week. “Last time out I threw a lot of heaters and they were pretty aggressive so I wanted to come in and keep them off balance. I had my curveball going early so we rolled with it.”
The Blue Jays leveled in the fifth when Michael Saunders hit a one-out, ground-rule double and then waited at second to ensure Michael Bourn didn’t chase down Pillar’s smash to the right-field corner. It went off Bourn’s glove, Saunders advanced to third and then scored when Carrera blooped a single to centre.
That was it for Tillman, and Travis promptly turned Mychal Givens’ first pitch into a 5-4-3 double play, an all too familiar ending to rallies this season for the Blue Jays. They led the majors by hitting into 153 twin-kills and hit into three Tuesday.
Still, the dome, open for the first time in the post-season, stayed as raucous and loud as any stadium in the big-leagues and who would have imagined that back when Dave Winfield was begging for noise. It had precisely the type of ambience you want during a playoff game, save for the one buffoon who threw a drink by Hyun Soo Kim as the left-fielder hauled in Melvin Upton Jr.’s drive to the warning track in the seventh inning.
That brought Showalter out to make one of his scenes, and for once it was justified.
The tension didn’t ease until Encarnacion’s big swing gave the Blue Jays another round.
“We’re not done,” said Stroman. “We realize what we’re capable of and we’re going take this confidence and this mentality into the next series.”
An October that was so tenuous is now filled with possibilities, not to mention intrigue.