Unlikely source helps Blue Jays rebound after trying weekend

Ezequiel Carrera hit a pinch hit home run in the bottom of the eighth inning and the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Tampa Bay Rays.

TORONTO – Ezequiel Carrera worried his drive to left wouldn’t have enough to clear the wall — if it didn’t sail foul. Roberto Osuna feared he’d just surrendered a go-ahead two-run homer, two pitches after mistakenly celebrating a victory when he didn’t see a foul tip slip through Russell Martin’s mitt.

Neither concern came to pass for the Toronto Blue Jays in a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night, when fortune fell their way for a change amid a trying September so far.

Carrera’s drive just cleared the wall in the left-field corner in the eighth inning to provide the winning margin, after back-to-back homers an inning earlier by Evan Longoria and Brad Miller erased a lead Jose Bautista’s two-run shot in the sixth had just provided.

Then Osuna – pumping serious gas for his 32nd save – wasn’t punished for testing baseball’s karmic laws with his premature celebration when Steven Souza Jr., just got a piece of a high fastball. He wasn’t the only one fooled – a crowd of 35,333 went nuts and the Rogers Centre air horn blew. Then Kevin Pillar had to range far to his right on a Souza smash that looked like big trouble off the bat.

"I was like, I hope I don’t miss in the middle and lose this game because that’s what happens when you do that. But to be honest, I didn’t see when Russ dropped the ball, so that’s why, I didn’t try to offend anyone or do anything to make him feel bad," said Osuna. "I thought it was gone. When I looked at Pillar and he was going back, back, back I was like, ‘Ohhh,’ but he got it and we won. That’s it."

Martin thought the ball was gone too, and when he told Souza, "I thought you crushed that ball, I thought you got it," the teams nearly ended up in a brawl. Souza looked at Martin trying to ascertain what was said, Troy Tulowitzki, "jumped in a like a ball of fire," as Martin put it and pointed Souza to the dugout, and the benches cleared before order was restored.

"I may have walked a little too much, and I thought Russ was saying something about it, which would have been on me, totally," explained Souza. "And I was saying, ‘Dude, I’m sorry, I thought I got it.’ There was miscommunication in that he actually said, ‘I thought you got it.’ And so I said, ‘Oh, my bad and walked away.’ But then Troy decided to jump in and say some things that weren’t really necessary. …

"He just maybe said some stuff below the belt that I’m not going to repeat. We’ll leave it on the field. They’re trying to win a pennant, I’m not going to hold it against him. Competition’s flaring, close game. Stuff like that is going to happen, he’s just trying to protect his teammates."

By the time all was said and done, the Blue Jays managed to protect their place in the standings, remaining two games behind the Boston Red Sox for the American League East lead, while moving a game up on the Baltimore Orioles, 12-2 losers at Fenway Park, for the top wild card spot.

The victory was just their fourth in 12 games, although the struggle in making it happen underlines what the past couple of weeks have been like for them.

"Just like the other teams that are in that battle with us are great, we’re also great," said Bautista. "It’s about execution and coming in every day and not giving up, having that mentality that no matter what the score is, you’re always going to put up a fight, and I believe we have done that."

They needed plenty of fight against the lowly Rays, who were officially eliminated from the division race with the loss, as a Francisco Liriano gem nearly went to waste while manager John Gibbons decided to rest reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who’s in an 0-for-23 slide.

"He’s beat up, his body is banged up," Gibbons explained. "I figured it was a good day to give him a day. Let him regroup, rest up."

Against the odds, Carrera ended up saving the day, pinch-hitting for Darwin Barney to open the eighth and slicing a high-arching drive off Brad Boxberger that just barely made it over.

It was the club’s first pinch-hit homer since last July 25 at Seattle when Carrera did it against the Mariners, and given that he had an OPS of .277 – that’s not a typo – in 63 plate appearances since July 15, he wasn’t a very likely candidate to break that run.

"To be honest, when I made contact with the ball I knew it was well hit. I didn’t think it was going to go out but then for a second I thought it was going to be foul, too, so it worked out pretty well," Carrera said through translator Josue Peley. "I feel happy that it worked out that way and hopefully the team can build on that, keep rolling and keep on that path."

Liriano, making his first start since Aug. 26, kept the game under control through the first six innings, allowing only a Logan Forsythe single – dude mashes Blue Jays pitching – and a walk.

He’d been in the bullpen last week but returned to the rotation in the latest bit of manoeuvring by the Blue Jays, who pushed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey back to Friday in Anaheim. Dickey will start in place of Aaron Sanchez, both to limit the fireballer’s innings and give time for his blister to ease, while Liriano will follow on Saturday.

That spot in the rotation is due to make two more starts after that one and the way Liriano pitched opened an interesting question for the Blue Jays about whether they stick with the lefty, or go back to Dickey.

It goes without saying that every game counts now, and Liriano, who could also be utilized as a power lefty in the bullpen, made a pretty solid case for himself, even if it was against the Rays.

"He looked great," said Bautista. "He’s one of the best lefties in baseball in the last three or four years, if not longer. When he’s healthy, he’s on point, and he showed it today. Tough two homers, guys that have a lot of pop over there, they run into one now and then and that’s what happened, in my eyes it was a great start, he gave us a chance to win the ballgame and we did."

These are all-hands-on-deck times for the Blue Jays, and many hands were needed Monday. Bautista delivered in a key spot – set up by a risky hustle double by Devon Travis – but as they showed last season, success requires contributions from unlikely sources, too.

"Zeke hadn’t been playing a whole heck of a lot and he’d gone through struggles for a short while there, too, but then you look back at when Bautista went down, he became our sparkplug," Gibbons said of his decision to use Carrera instead of someone else. "I figured I’d give him a shot, maybe he’ll spark us, get on base, do something and it rolls back, we’ve got the top of the lineup coming up and he did it in a big way. We didn’t have to worry about anybody else. Great job Z."

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