Meaningful baseball is fun, and Jays have lots left

Jose Bautista singled in the winning run in the 19th inning as the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Detroit Tigers.

If this lasts until September, we’re all going to lose our collective minds.

Baseball that matters?

It’s just too fun. Munenori Kawasaki scoring the winning run in a 19-inning, 6-5 walk-off win over the Detroit Tigers in the longest game in franchise history?

Colby Rasmus making wall-banging and turf-burning catches, respectively, in the 18th and 19th innings with men on base to preserve a near flawless six-inning relief appearance by Chad Jenkins?

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Fun. Scary, but fun.

“When Cabrera smoked that ball (to the wall in the 18th) I literally put my head down and went ‘Crap,’” said Jenkins who will likely be optioned to Buffalo as the Blue Jays will need fresh bullpen arms after using everyone to hold the Tigers scoreless in 15 innings of work.

It was only one of dozens of plays large and small, it seemed, that set the stage for Jose Bautista getting his jersey torn off by his teammates in a mob at second base after winning it with a single after 6 hours and 37 minutes of baseball. He was also rewarded with a big, beardy smooch from R.A. Dickey, who was warmed up to pitch the 20th inning.

It was fun. Fun for the players too, who have taken to celebrating big wins with a dry ice machine and who knows what else in the clubhouse, the fog from which was still in the air well after the win.

“I can’t give out all the secrets,” said Rasmus. “At the end of the day winning is fun and fun is winning.”

If you – for example – are the kind of Toronto Blue Jays fan that enjoys Jose Reyes screaming and pounding his hands in celebration after a game-tying single in the bottom of the ninth to cap a comeback from five runs down, Sunday was the game for you.

If you enjoy Blue Jays manager John Gibbons having to make like a sushi chef with his bench and rolling out prized rookie starter Marcus Stroman as a pinch runner in the bottom of the 10th (to no avail as it turned out), this was the game for you.

If you have your fancy tickled by watching Bautista manage both a tricky rundown and a wicked, spinning ground ball as a first baseman with a runner on third in the top of the 13th … you can see where this is going.

As a baseball game it was a sunny backyard barbeque that threatened to turn into a late night kitchen party.

But the result is what matters. As fun as important baseball being played this time of the year can be, it can turn ugly if the right team doesn’t figure out a way to get the win. The Blue Jays were the victims against the Tigers on Friday night after losing in the 10th but battled back to win the series in improbable fashion. But they remain 1.5 games behind the Kansas City Royals for the last wild card spot. There is work to do.

“It was a tough game to play because it was so long, but it was a fun one,” said Bautista who was 0-for-7 and 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position before his game winner. “But if we had lost I wouldn’t be saying it was fun … if we had lost a game like that it would have been harder to keep it on the positive side, but we don’t have to worry about that, I guess. We’ll have a long, happy flight on the way to Seattle.”

What will happen when they land and in what shape they’ll be when they come back is the question.

They start yet another make or break segment of their schedule – an eight-game road trip beginning with a three-game series against wild card rival Mariners — having finished their six-game homestand 3-3 .

They have proved themselves a team with heart, but more important than the symbolism, was what the win actually stood for: Even while appearing to be on fumes at times, the Blue Jays remain in the hunt and with Adam Lind expected to meet them in Seattle, some help is finally on the way.

But will that be enough?

Lost in the mists of time Sunday – otherwise known as the first four innings — was another troublesome start by Mark Buehrle, the veteran Blue Jays starter who is suddenly mired in one of the worst stretches of his career exactly on the heels of his career-best 10-1 start through June 1.

For the third time in four games the $18-million innings eater was done in about the time it takes to mow the lawn. His line Sunday – 3.1 innings pitched, nine hits, two walks – is part of a trend. It’s the first time in his career he’s failed to work at least five innings in consecutive starts in his 15 seasons. All told he’s allowed 13 runs in his last 17 innings pitched over four starts for an ERA of 6.88.

When Buehrle was 0-5 through eight starts (4.06 ERA in 51 IP) following his stellar performance through May and June it looked like things were evening out. What he’s done the last four outings, with his team battered, bleeding and trying to hold on until the cavalry comes back from injuries is falling-off-a-cliff kind of stuff.

The Blue Jays can only hope he pulls himself back from the brink.

Unfortunately for Toronto, Buehrle didn’t get there all by himself. Pushing him along was shortstop Reyes in an outing that was his season in a nutshell.

It’s hard to complain about his production at the plate  — he’s followed up hitting .324 July with a .365 August and drove in runs in the seventh and ninth to help the Jays claw back into the game on a 4-for-9 outing — but the more you watch Reyes the more his defensive liabilities become apparent. His flaws are all the more glaring against the backdrop of his salary, which at $16 million this season makes him the second highest paid shortstop in the game, a number that jumps to $22 million each of the next three years for the 31-year-old.

It sounds crazy to say about a play six hours before, but the Blue Jays may never have needed extra innings if Reyes had made the easy out in the first place, way back in the first inning.

Buehrle’s troubles began when Reyes failed to cleanly field a hot ground ball off the bat of Victor Martinez with two out and one on. Instead of being out of the inning the Tigers nicked Buehrle for three straight singles and three runs.

It took six innings for the Blue Jays to recover as catcher Dioner Navarro rapped a two-run home run in the sixth before they finally chased Price as Reyes and Melky Cabrera made it 5-4 with back-to-back singles.

Reyes might have cost the Blue Jays a chance again as on a 3-2 count with runners at first and second and one out, Bautista chased and Reyes – running on the pitch for some reason – got thrown out trying to steal third for a rare strike’em out throw’em out double play. Inning over.

Raising the question: What was Reyes doing?

For one night the answer doesn’t matter. They found a way to win, using 23 players on their roster and despite leaving 24 men on base. They have now won consecutive games against Cy Young Award winners and are rewarded with a matchup with another — the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez — one night and a cross-continental flight from now.

“That’s the mark of a good team,” said Rasmus.  “You have to do what you got to do to keep going. Drink some Red Bull or something.”

The fun is just getting started.

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