So it is right and proper that we celebrate games such as Friday night’s 4-3, extra-innings walk-off win over the Baltimore Orioles — a win delivered with an opposite-field home run off the bat of Encarnacion that snapped an 0-for-19 funk and made him the eighth player in Blue Jays history with 600 runs batted in. It’s a touchstone for those of us who remember how little was expected of Encarnacion when he arrived at the trade deadline in 2009 along with Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds that had been requested by Scott Rolen; how he was the overweight, slightly sloppy guy who had been a mess at third base for the Reds. He’d be lost by the Blue Jays — claimed on waivers by the Oakland Athletics on Nov. 12, 2010 and re-signed by the Blue Jays after he was granted free agency three weeks later.
“It’s a thing you don’t look for,” Encarnacion said later, after the Blue Jays raised their record to 33-30 in a game in which they blew a lead with Marco Estrada on the mound. “But I thank god for it.”
Plenty of folks were thankful for this win, including manager John Gibbons whose team yet again went crying for a clutch hit after grabbing a first-inning lead on a Josh Donaldson single. Jesse Chavez fired two innings of scoreless relief, Roberto Osuna buzz-sawed the bottom of the Orioles lineup in the ninth and Drew Storen (1-2) kept the ball in the infield in the 10th setting the stage for Encarnacion’s heroics.
“That was a big game for us, the way last night got away,” Gibbons said. “We had an early lead and of course they came back and tied it. But we held a great offence in check. To be honest with you, when you go back to the Bostons and Detroits and these guys we’ve played the three top offences or close to it … overall we’ve done a helluva job shutting them down and keeping them in check.
“But it was a big game, especially the way it happened. Those can be demoralizing.”
Estrada allowed four hits in six innings, the eighth time in nine starts he has held an opponent below five hits. But he left tied at 3-3, having given up a solo home run to Jonathan Schoop in the fourth and a two-run blast by Chris Davis in the sixth. Donaldson opened the scoring after Ezequiel Carrera, playing in place of Jose Bautista (who wanted to play but was kept out because of his leg injury), started off the game with a squeeze bunt then went to third when Orioles starter Kevin Gausman bounced a pick-off throw into the dirt. Michael Saunders led off the third with his 10th homer and Russell Martin singled in Justin Smoak for the Blue Jays third run.
Schoop’s homer came on an 0-2 cutter, a similar refrain to the homer Estrada allowed to Chris Young in his last start that killed a no-hit bid. Davis’s bomb also came on a first-pitch cutter.
Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin tried to take the blame after the game, but Estrada was having none of it, noting that ultimately it is the pitcher’s decision to throw the pitch. He could have shaken off Martin, in other words: “I was going after him (Schoop),” said Estrada. “I 100 per cent should have gotten it more inside.”
Given the way things have gone for the Blue Jays, it should have been another gut-punch, especially in light of the strength of the Orioles bullpen, which leads the majors with a 2.61 earned-run average coming into the game and seemed to be cruising when Mychal Givens made Donaldson look as bad as he’s looked all year on a strikeout and Brad Brach, second only to Givens in relief strikeouts, carved up Darwin Barney, Carrera and Donaldson in the ninth.
But Encarnacion ended it on a 3-2 pitch, in the process becoming the Blue Jays leader in walk-off home runs with four, ahead of a group of six others with three.
That it was an opposite-field blast was predictable, since Encarnacion has seen nothing but soft pitches away most of the season.
“I’m really happy we won, it was a really important game for us,” said Encarnacion. “They’d been throwing me outside all day.”
Gibbons was particularly pleased with the work of his much-maligned bullpen. Storen’s sinker and changeup were effective, as he tossed a perfect inning for only the second time in 25 relief innings with the Blue Jays.
“He’s been a successful closer in the bigs,” Gibbons said of Storen. “He’s not happy. He knows he’s better. He wants a better role … he will get there.”
Encarnacion joined the Blue Jays just weeks after Gibbons was fired in 2010, but Gibbons knows that it was a move off third base to first base and designated hitter that unlocked Encarnacion. It was a move lobbied for by many in the Reds organization before the trade, since despite his weight and fitness issues Encarnacion could move smoothly around the bag. “It made him more relaxed,” Gibbons said. “Made him a better hitter.”
The next mark for Encarnacion is Tony Fernandez’s 613 RBIs, the seventh-highest total in club history. This is what happens when you stay in a place for a while, when you start to collect numbers and memories.
“This just makes me want to get more milestones,” Encarnacion said as he wrapped up his post-game interview.
If they’re as timely as Friday night’s, this could yet turn into another summer to remember.