TORONTO – Kevin Pillar walked into the clubhouse with a plate of pasta in one hand, and a crisp new T-shirt on his back. Branded on the front with the words “Blue Jay Busted” over top a base-runner sliding into an infielder, and “DP Buster 15” on the back, it’s a point of pride in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse. Only players who break up a double play in such aggressive fashion get one as part of a program started a few years ago by Rich Miller, a senior advisor in the organization’s player development side.
Mark Buehrle, standing nearby, noticed the shirt, reached into his locker, pulled out his own and nodded to Pillar with a knowing me-and-you grin. Also, respect.
“They mail us the shirts,” said Pillar. “Those little things are part of the game. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fast guy or a slow guy, Buehrle had a great one earlier this year, it’s just part of the game, it helps extend innings.”
That’s precisely what happened in a 7-1 victory Thursday night against the New York Mets, when the full-throttle centre-fielder’s takeout slide on Wilmer Flores helped open the floodgates to a decisive five-run outburst in the fourth.
With the bases loaded and one out, Bartolo Colon got the groundball he was looking for from Ryan Goins, first baseman Lucas Duda fielded the ball, threw to Flores, and as he got ready to relay for two, Pillar stuck his legs out to the side while grabbing the bag, dropping the infielder to the ground.
That made Russell Martin safe at home for a 2-0 lead, and was followed by a Jose Reyes RBI single, a run-scoring double by Josh Donaldson and a two-run single by Jose Bautista.
With R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball dancing and a 6-0 edge, it was game over, a nail-biter suddenly a laugher.
“I knew when I did it I had done my job, but it feels good when you see the dugout’s reaction and they understand how big of a play it is,” said Pillar. “It’s not something that shows up in the boxscore, some people might not understand it, but everyone in that dugout, coaches, players, they understand how big it is and it feels good.”
Little things done the right way can make a big impact, as the Blue Jays demonstrated repeatedly during their 11-game win streak, and again in rebounding with a pair of victories after a pair of losses to the Mets. They’re now 36-32, with the Baltimore Orioles checking in Friday for an intriguing three-game set.
“That’s good, hard-nosed, old-time baseball,” manager John Gibbons said in praise of Pillar. “That’s what you’ve got to do to win.”
Colon managed to escape the fourth with no further damage but Chris Colabello opened the fifth with a solo shot to right field, his fifth homer, and an out later the veteran right-hander was done.
Dickey was in cruise time from there while facing his former team for the first time since the December 2012 blockbuster that sent him to Toronto, and worked into the eighth inning, leaving after Duda’s one-out solo homer to right ended a shutout bid on pitch No. 120.
A crowd of 27,588 stood as Dickey walked off the mound, prompting him to tip his cap, 40-year-old having outpitched 42-year-old.
“I was happy that the young buck won tonight,” he quipped.
The too-little-too-late Duda homer was one of only three hits the Mets managed to go with five walks, none after the third inning.
Dickey’s most pivotal frame came in the second, when he had trouble finding the strike zone, his woes exacerbated by home-plate umpire Mark Wegner seeming to struggle with tracking the knuckler. Close 3-2 pitches to both Ruben Tejeda, on a ball Martin couldn’t come up with cleanly, Dilson Herrera went for balls to load the bases and Curtis Granderson went to a full count before swinging through a 77 mph knuckler to end the frame.
Dickey spoke to Wegner on his way off the field in both the second and third innings, with the umpire conceding he may have missed the 3-2 pitch to Tejada.
“It depends on the guy, sometimes it’s an unwritten rule where if the catcher doesn’t catch it, it looks badly on the umpire if he calls it a strike,” said Dickey. “It’s one of those baseball etiquette things that a lot of guys don’t care about, if it’s a strike it’s a strike, regardless of if it goes off his facemask or not. But [Wegner] admitted that he probably missed it, and that he would try to lock in, and that’s all you can hope for. He was very professional about it.”
The Blue Jays went up 1-0 in the second when Colabello reached on a Herrera error, advanced on a groundout and scored on Pillar’s chopper up the middle.
Combined with his three hits, including a homer, and two RBI in Wednesday’s 8-0 win, Pillar’s performance provided a nice comeback from his baserunning blunder in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss, when he didn’t look up before trying to go first to third on a single only to find that third was occupied.
“He got hammered pretty good the other night in New York, but you’re not going to find a better base runner in baseball than Kev, that’s just who he is,” said Gibbons. “He’s got great instincts and he lays it out there.”
Pillar did that on both his mistake and his takeout slide, two plays that come from an aggressiveness that can make a big difference. Channelled the right way, it’s a catalyst for very good things, and he’s got the T-shirt to prove it.