Martin, Blue Jays bring down the house in win over Yankees

Marcus Stroman pitched seven shutout innings and Russell Martin hit a three-run bomb to give the Blue Jays a 4-0 win over the Yankees, putting Toronto 3.5 games up on New York for the division lead.

TORONTO — After the top of the sixth inning Wednesday night, in the heat of an anxious and scoreless ballgame, Kevin Pillar ran into the Blue Jays clubhouse to use the washroom. It was there that he ran into his bench coach, DeMarlo Hale, and as both men emerged relieved they had a quick chat.

“One run might do it for us tonight,” Hale told Pillar as the centre fielder made his way to the video room to watch film of Yankees reliever Caleb Cotham, who was warming in the bullpen and would likely come in to face Pillar if the inning went that deep.

“Hopefully I get the opportunity,” Pillar responded. “I want to be that guy.”

That’s when the stars aligned. The Blue Jays put two runners on with two outs in the bottom of the sixth for Pillar, who got a first-pitch slider from Cotham and laced it up the middle to score the winning run in a 4-0 Blue Jays victory over the Yankees—the most important win Rogers Centre has seen in 22 years.

“That’s the biggest hit of my life. Maybe the best feeling I’ve ever had on a baseball field,” Pillar said after the game, about to hop on a scooter and ride home. “With the emotions of this series, the emotions of this game—that was huge for me.”

Huge for Pillar, who has by his own admission been struggling to find his way at the plate during this crucial September; huge for the Blue Jays, who now hold a 3.5-game lead on the AL East with a magic number of eight to clinch the division, and four to clinch a post-season berth; and huge for a nervous crowd of 48,056 that was noticeably tense Wednesday night, as if waiting for reassurance.

When Pillar broke the tie, every fan in the house rose to their feet, a sea of blue, white and grey letting out a delirious surge of noise and emotion that had been building for two hours, as if someone had taken their finger off the nozzle of a running hose.

And who could blame them for being hesitant? Their team had lost three of its past four, all in stomach-turning fashion, either the result of uncommonly poor defence or bullpen failure. The New York Yankees—those aged, plucky nuisances—had been pushed to the bitter edge of their AL East hopes following a virtuoso performance from David Price Monday night, only to spring back with a resilient, demoralizing victory in extra innings Tuesday.

Things simply weren’t going the Blue Jays’ way, and Wednesday night’s first five innings, plus two outs of the sixth, were no different, as Toronto stranded its first six base-runners and allowed the Yankees to dance through the raindrops once again.

But then, the seventh. As Pillar and Hale chatted in the clubhouse, Russell Martin worked a seven-pitch, two-out walk against Yankees starter Ivan Nova, laying off several tempting pitches from the right-hander who had frustrated the Blue Jays all night, sending hitters fishing for two-seamers and curveballs that kept falling away from their bats.

“Nova had his good stuff today. His fastball was moving a lot; his breaking ball was sharp,” Martin said. “I was just trying to fight; just trying to win the at-bat.”

Then Ryan Goins and his .197 career batting average against left-handed pitching hit an unlikely 0-2 single off Yankees left-hander James Pazos—who was throwing 97-mph bullets—which moved Martin to third base. The Yankees went back to their bullpen for Cotham, who had retired 11 of the 12 Blue Jays he’d faced this season, and Pillar got his moment.

And that wasn’t the last of it. An inning later, Martin came back to the plate with two on and two out, working a 2-2 count against Andrew Bailey who then served him a 94-mph fastball that bled over the plate. The catcher from Montreal crushed it into the blue of the Toronto bullpen. And the noise was unbelievable.

“The park is sold out; the crowd is electric. It makes those moments stand out even more,” Martin said. “If the crowd wasn’t as loud as it was, it wouldn’t feel the same. “

Of course, lost in all of this is Marcus Stroman, who has been nothing short of unbelievable since returning to the Blue Jays after an against-all-odds, six-month recovery from ACL surgery this March. He won his third game in three tries Wednesday night, continuing to build on what’s shaping up to be a truly special sophomore season.

“He just seems like he’s getting comfortable out there,” Martin said. “He can pretty much challenge anybody at anytime with that fastball because of the movement. He spins the ball as well as anybody in the game. And he’s got a changeup. He’s got five pitches that work for him. He’s a special cat.”

Stroman neutralized a dangerous Yankees lineup for the second time this month, cruising through his first six innings while striking out five and allowing just one man wearing pinstripes to reach second base. He relied heavily on the two-seamer he developed midway through his breakout rookie season, throwing it nearly a third of the time, as well as his wipe-out slider, which was his best pitch on the night.

“In my first two starts I wasn’t hitting on my slider like I was today,” said Stroman, who threw 61 of his 95 pitches for strikes. “They had eight lefties in the lineup, so it was a huge pitch to keep me down in the zone, keep the ball on the ground, and give them a different look than the pitches I was throwing last outing.”

Stroman didn’t face adversity until the seventh, when he walked Carlos Beltran and allowed a single to Chase Headley to put two runners on for Dustin Ackley. But Stroman used that slider to get Ackley to fly out to centre field, where Pillar made a difficult play look easy (“He got an unbelievable read on it,” Stroman said). As the ball fell into his centre fielder’s glove, Stroman let out a roar, matched only by the delirious crowd around him. Again, the finger came off the nozzle.

“He’s a show pony. That’s what he is,” Pillar said of Stroman. “He’s that guy who, when the lights come on, rises to the occasion. It was fun to be a part of. We all witnessed something special tonight.”

They did. And the most special moments may still be yet to come.

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