MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Things can change awfully quickly in this game. Tell that to J.A. Happ and the Toronto Blue Jays, who cruised into the bottom of the eighth inning Saturday afternoon with a two-run lead and absolutely no signs of life from the Minnesota Twins. About 30 minutes later, they faced a very different scenario.
The Twins did all their damage in that eighth inning, scoring five runs off Happ and reliever Gavin Floyd to earn their first victory of this series, 5-3.
For a while there, it looked like Happ was going to follow up one of the worst outings of his life with one of the best. After one-hitting the Twins through seven innings, he allowed the first two batters to reach in the eighth before Danny Santana took a first-pitch fastball down the right field line to score two, tie the game and spoil a masterful outing.
“It’s hard to say they were better than us today. But that’s the fact of the matter,” Happ said. “A groundball through the five-hole, then a walk and a slap hit, and that’s the game. It’s tough to take. But other than the eighth inning I felt real good about it. Even with the eighth inning. That’s going to happen.”
Happ left with Santana on second, giving way to Floyd who hit Brian Dozier with the first pitch he threw and then watched Eduardo Nunez take him 424-feet to left field for a three-run shot that gave the Twins all the offence they would need.
“Well, he left a fastball on the inner half of the plate. That’s usually never good,” Gibbons said of the homer Floyd gave up. “J.A. couldn’t have pitched any better. But they mounted the rally. They got that leadoff hit, and then the walk. Those walks, in tight games, they’re guaranteed to burn you. It’s like the baseball gods punishing you, let’s face it.”
Until that eighth, Happ was phenomenal, pounding the bottom half of the strike zone with fastballs and living on the outer edges to induce plenty of weak contact. Happ’s brilliance followed the worst outing of his career—a two-inning, eight-run debacle against the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this week that Happ called “a nightmare.”
In that start the left-hander couldn’t get his two-seam fastball to sink, watching it leave his hand and sit up in the zone, where Tampa hitters could take full advantage of it. But in the four days since, Happ cured whatever was ailing him, as the two-seamer allowed him to get groundball outs when he needed them, especially in the middle innings.
“I felt a lot better about it,” Happ said of his two-seamer. “We worked on it in my bullpen and my side session. We made a few minor tweaks without overthinking it and I thought it was coming out better today.”
Of course, Happ also used Target’s Field’s spacious outfield to his advantage, sending five fly balls Kevin Pillar’s way in centre field. One of those flyballs, off the bat of Miguel Sano in the fourth inning, actually led to two outs as Pillar gunned down Nunez as he tried to advance to third base on the play. It was Pillar’s fifth outfield assist of the season.
“I felt like I was dominating the game and it was going our way,” Happ said. “The game was close and it just got away from us there.”
The Blue Jays’ afternoon began bizarrely when home plate umpire Toby Basner ejected Josh Donaldson from the game in the top of the first inning after the third baseman grounded out to shortstop. Donaldson was trading chirps with someone on the Twins bench, and Basner thought they were directed at him, which provoked him to eject the Blue Jays third baseman.
Donaldson’s ejection hurt, but the Blue Jays should have still been confident as they faced Twins starter Pat Dean, a left-hander who leans on a soft fastball and doesn’t strike anyone out. In other words, exactly the type of pitcher the Blue Jays would feast upon last season.
But through six innings Saturday, Dean had little trouble containing the Blue Jays offence. He made one grievous error in the third inning, hanging an 84-mph slider on the inner-half to Jose Bautista, who smoked it 392-feet into the left field seats for a two-run homer.
Otherwise, the Blue Jays struggled for hits against Dean, drawing three walks but never pushing a runner into scoring position outside of a Darwin Barney double in the third which came around on Bautista’s bomb.
“I don’t remember last year, I’m tired of talking about last year, if you want to know the truth. You can’t live in the past,” Gibbons said. “Basically, Dean shut us down. For whatever reason, he shut us down.”
The Blue Jays had a chance against a shaky Minnesota bullpen in the eighth, putting two runners on with one out, but Justin Smoak hit into a double play to end the threat. Michael Saunders hit a solo shot off Twins closer Kevin Jepsen in the ninth, but that was as close as the Blue Jays would get.
“We let them hang around, that’s for sure. We didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of opportunities. We had some, couldn’t cash them in,” Gibbons said. “We put our backs against the wall.”