TORONTO – The high point came early. Like way, way, way too early.
Maybe it was when the crowd began trickling in two hours before game time and one of the first in the Rogers Centre bellowed: “I’ve waited 22 years for this day.”
Or maybe it was before the game, when the Blue Jays used a recording of Michael Burgess – the first person to sing O Canada at a World Series game, back in 1992, and who recently passed from cancer – for the anthem.
Or perhaps it was way back in the second inning, when Blue Jays starter David Price faced three Texas Rangers batters and struck them all out. He made it look easy.
But it wasn’t, and you get the sense that if the Blue Jays are going to get to where they want to go, it won’t be easy, not at all. Game 1 was a reminder of that.
Price said it wasn’t the rust from his 11-day layoff that was the problem. It was the nerves even though they may not have been evident.
“If you’re not out and you’re not nervous those first couple of pitches, those first couple of innings, you’re not human,” he said. “Whenever a duck is swimming, they look calm and collected on the outside of the water, but underneath the water they’re kicking away, so [nerves] are part of it.”
After a rocky first inning Price came back in the second and cut down Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus in order in the second, all seemed right in the Blue Jays universe.
It was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last very long. After a 162-game regular season that played out like a fairy tale, Blue Jays fans got a rude re-introduction to the roller-coaster that is post-season baseball (remember 1985? Or 1991?).
There may well be plenty of highs coming, but it will take some doing to get the Blue Jays into the black again. You’d like to remind everyone that’s it’s a long series after Toronto dropped Game 1 of the ALDS matchup against the Texas Rangers 5-3, with Game 2 coming on a quick turnaround Friday at 12:30.
But it’s not a long series.
“Every game is vital, really,” said Jays manager John Gibbons. “You have to win three out of five.”
Except now it’s a quick three out of four.
There’s not a lot of time for a club to collect itself, or a fan base to refortify after a game full of crisis, big and small, but all concerning.
Crisis No.1 was simply the barely so-so performance by Price, who was trailing 2-0 after three innings and 4-1 after five and – just as the Blue Jays had clawed themselves back into striking distance – 5-3 after seven innings when he finally called it an afternoon.
But the Blue Jays ace falling prey to nerves was just the start of it. That was nothing compared to what was coming.
When the Blue Jays’ MVP candidate and resident superhero Josh Donaldson took a knee to the head in the fourth inning while sliding to break up a double play and then basically got up and sprinted past the trainers, it was old school cool, true grit and it helped the Jays earn a run on an infield hit by Edwin Encarnacion a moment later.
The Blue Jays’ heart-and-soul sat in the dugout, adjusted the elastic in his man-bun and came out to play the fifth inning like nothing happened.
But the sense of unease that was hinted at when Price struggled to hit his spots kept spreading. Next thing you know it was Ezequiel Carrera taking Donaldson’s spot in the batting order as the Blue Jays’ third baseman was removed for “precautionary reasons.”
He cleared all concussion tests and will be re-evaluated on Friday, but still, not an ideal start to the post-season.
But what could you expect, if you were at all superstitious, or had at all been subjected to the decade-plus of Toronto sports futility that makes it hard not believe an anvil is poised to be dropped out the nearest window?
The Blue Jays entered the game facing all kinds of adversarial voodoo. They are on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Taylor Swift played the Rogers Centre last week – the pop star’s presence had triggered home team slumps at every baseball stadium she played this summer, seemingly.
Mostly, however, the Blue Jays were in a can’t-win situation as the team that can’t lose. After 22 years as an afterthought in MLB, they were darlings again, with the industry taking note of the sellout streak, the way the buzz around the team had pushed the Toronto Maple Leafs – and everything else – on the back pages. Their offensive numbers were the stuff of video games and their pitching has been on lockdown since the all-star break.
The only problem is that those trends reflect the outcome of a 162-game marathon, and now the Blue Jays are in a sprint, first team to win three.
In theory Price was supposed to give the Blue Jays a leg up, a true ace to stake their claim to post-season glory early and loudly.
Then Price went out and gave up five runs on five hits in seven innings.
Then Donaldson went down.
Then, just when it appeared there might be life in what was a quiet Jays batting order most of the afternoon, a massive home run by Jose Bautista in the sixth cut the Rangers lead to 4-3, there was more cause for concern when the Jays right-fielder left the game prior to the ninth inning, led down the tunnel to the clubhouse by a trainer.
Cramping in his hamstring was the word, although he’s expected to be available Friday.
What does it all mean? What it means is that no matter how good or great the player or the team, the game can undo anyone at any time.
The 49,834 that filed into the Rogers Centre and waved towels like it was 1993 were expecting the good guys to win and left disappointed.
Now they have to turn to Marcus Stroman to right the post-season ship, which can take on water as quick as you can say “Titanic.”
Stroman has enough optimism to float an armada, fortunately, and he’ll be taking the mound in Game 2 with it leaking out of every pore.
“I’m just excited, man, and this is an unbelievable opportunity especially where I came from this past year,” he said. “I’m just ecstatic just to be here, you know what I mean? Not just to be here, but I’m ready to go out there and compete and dominate.”
All too suddenly that’s exactly what the Blue Jays desperately need.