TORONTO – More than at any point over the past two decades, the future is very much the present for the Toronto Blue Jays, with thoughts of next season and what lies beyond falling well off the grid, as they very well should.
After all, this living in the moment thing is pretty cool.
Still, with Mark Buehrle making what might have been his final home start for the Toronto Blue Jays in Sunday’s home finale, a 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays sealed on Josh Donaldson’s dramatic walk-off home run, it makes sense to expand the focus a little bit and enlarge the picture.
Continuing to survive on command, location and guile, despite averaging his second lowest fastball velocities of the season at roughly 81 mph, the classy left-hander will be in tough to make the club’s post-season rotation, especially given the issues with his shoulder the past month.
Nothing is carved in stone, but as manager John Gibbons put it when it comes to delicate decisions, “you can’t let your heart give away your head.”
“I think they need to look at who’s throwing the ball the best right now, who’s feeling the best,” Buehrle said. “For sure they’ll talk to us, I’ll talk to them, that’s their decision to make.”
If he doesn’t start in the playoffs, than the six innings of four-run ball with five strikeouts he delivered before a Rogers Centre crowd of 47,287 – pushing the season total to 2,794,891, the most since 2,826,483 in 1995 – might be it since he’s a free agent at season’s end.
Retirement is one possibility, and there’s a thought that if Buehrle does pitch in 2016, his preference could be to pitch closer to his Missouri home. A qualifying offer, which is expected to be in the $16-million range, could lure him back or at least ensure a compensatory draft pick if he signs elsewhere, but there may be too much risk there, especially with a rotation guaranteed to return only Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison.
All of which is why, perhaps, this was goodbye, even if Buehrle doesn’t see things that way.
“If I announced my retirement at the beginning of the year, then maybe that would be something different, but I still don’t know what’s going to happen,” he replied when asked if he felt any extra emotion. “I’ll go home and think about it, and if it is my last start here, then that’s something I’ll be sentimental about on my couch in the off-season. Right now I don’t look at that stuff, I’m focused on (his next start) Friday.”
Regardless of how that plays out, Buehrle pitched his heart out for the Blue Jays over the past three seasons, delivering years of 12-10 with a 4.15 ERA, 13-10 with a 3.39 and 14-7 with a 3.76 ahead of his final regular season outing Friday at Tropicana Field.
He needs 8.2 innings for a 15th straight year of 200 innings pitched, and Gibbons raised the possibility of letting Buehrle start again Sunday if the game didn’t impact the standings.
“Mathematically it’s still there, but the chances and the reality is pretty slim,” said Buehrle. “I’ve had plenty of opportunities this season to go deeper into games … it just wasn’t there. If it comes to an end, it comes to an end, and the world isn’t going to end.”
This year, without his 7-1, 2.16 ERA run over 13 starts stretching from the beginning of June to the middle of August, the Blue Jays may very well have been sunk.
Factor in his work mentoring the club’s young pitchers, particularly Stroman, the example he’s set in the clubhouse, and the professionalism with which he’s performed hurting or not, and Buehrle alone has provided good value from the Marlins blockbuster in November 2012.
“You’re not going to come into that day feeling that you’re going to be overpowered but he just does a great job of manipulating the strike zone, up, down, away, in,” said Donaldson. “It’s been tough the second half of the season because his body isn’t always responding the way he wants it to, but he goes out there and gives us his best every time. He’s not scared of contact, he’s not scared of those big situations, he’s been there, he’d done that, and you know what he’s going to get and I think that’s most important of what Mark Buehrle brings to the table.”
For those and other reasons, it was somewhat surprising to not see Gibbons pull Buehrle mid-inning for the fans to fete him. Yes, for the first time since 1993 there are post-season games to come, but some recognition from the crowd would have been richly deserved.
“I’m a sentimental guy, but that really didn’t resgister with me, we’re trying to win the game,” admitted Gibbons. “I’ll apologize to him.”
Also richly deserved were the M-V-P chants that greeted Donaldson at home after his third walk-off homer this season, triggering another wild celebration in the stands.
The Blue Jays rallied from a 4-1 deficit on Justin Smoak’s two-run homer in the sixth and Kevin Pillar’s game-tying double in the eighth before Donaldson dropped the hammer.
“He’s a great player with a knack for coming through,” said Russell Martin. “There just aren’t many players like that out there anymore.”
He helped keep the game 4-3 in the top of the eighth when he fielded Evan Longoria’s chopper and then dove back to third base to tag Mikie Mahtook, who strayed too far from the bag, for a pivotal first out. Logan Forsythe proceeded to hit into an inning-ending double play and the stage was set.
“At that point of the game I thought he was going on contact no matter where the ball was hit because he’s a really fast runner,” said Donaldson, who in the ninth inning was clipped in the calf by Steven Souza Jr., at second base, where he was covering on a pop up caught by Ben Revere. “Once I first saw the ball hit, I could see (Mahtook) out of my peripheral take a couple of steps and I was actually going to get ready to throw home. Once he broke back to third I knew I had an opportunity to tag him out there, and I know in that situation of the game, if we’re able to get that out that’s a big out for us because he’s only 90 feet away with no outs. So I took a chance right there and I was able to make the play.”
That’s the now, dramatic, electric, with bigger things to come as in-game announcer Tim Langton alluded to, when he bid fans adieu by saying, “we’ll see you in the post-season.” Whether or not that includes Buehrle on the mound is another matter.