TORONTO – An eight-run fifth inning followed by a two-spot in the sixth, spotting ace Luis Castillo an 11-2 lead, looked to have the Seattle Mariners on their way to a comfortable dub on the afternoon of Sept. 25. They were, after all, facing the lowly Kansas City Royals, a team already 90 losses into a 97-loss season that led to the firing of both president of baseball operations Dayton Moore and manager Mike Matheny. About as automatic as automatic gets.
Only that fateful day, it wasn’t as the Royals scored 11 times in the bottom of the sixth – more runs than they’d push across in their next four games combined – and held on for a 13-12 win.
The setback was a seventh in 10 games for the Mariners and many of the things said in the wake of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Game 2 collapse Saturday were said that day, too. Brutal. Unacceptable. Choke job. Pretender. Flawed roster. Bad manager. Simply can’t happen.
These things do, of course, happen because is baseball is simultaneously stupid and brilliant and awful and amazing and cruel and inspiring. It’s an industry filled with some of the business world’s sharpest minds trying to sort order amid a chaos, yet the unbelievable occurs time and again.
And it’s there lore lives, for better and worse, as the Blue Jays and Mariners rediscovered Saturday in an epic wild-card game that was utter agony for one 1977 expansion cousin, pure exhilaration for the other. Yes, no team should blow an 8-1 lead with 12 outs to go to lose an elimination game 10-9. But every once in a while, they do, simply because, and try as you might to reconcile things, you can’t for that reason.
“Baseball. Not much else to say,” was Bo Bichette’s response Saturday night after the 10-9 loss to the Mariners that ended the Blue Jays’ season, and he’s right. “We laid everything we had out there and we just got beat. That’s it.”
It is and it isn’t, and the innate compulsion to find reason and second guess and assign blame makes these losses so much harder to process. In hindsight, of course interim manager John Schneider should have stuck with Kevin Gasuman in the sixth over Tim Mayza. How could he start the eighth with Anthony Bass instead of Jordan Romano? Why was Jackie Bradley Jr., the team’s most capable defensive outfielder, on the bench with six outs to in a 9-5 game?
The decisions are always so obvious once you know the outcome.
Part of baseball’s beauty is the ability to think along with the manager and debate the chess match. None of Saturday’s decisions were driven by egregious reasoning, like former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little sticking with Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the New York Yankees. Would everyone criticizing Schneider for turning Santana around with the lefty Mayza praise him for being astute enough to trust swing-plane/ball movement data had the switch-hitter grounded out to short? Or would the decision still be flawed in that case?
In a results business, such retrospect analysis is part of the deal and the moments that backfire leave what-ifs to linger.
The Blue Jays have had their share of those over the years, with blowing a 3-1 lead in the 1985 ALCS to the Royals and losing seven straight games in the final week of the 1987 season to hand the Detroit Tigers the AL East high among them.
They’ve been on the other side of the coin, too, starting with Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, when they scored six times in the eighth inning to erase five-run deficit in a 15-14 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. And how about decisive Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS, when the Texas Rangers made three errors and Rougned Odor misread a Josh Donaldson blooper allowing the tying to score before Jose Baustita’s iconic bat-flip home run.
George Springer, whose frightening collision with Bichette in the outfield diving for the J.P. Crawford blooper led to the three-run double that tied Saturday’s game 9-9, has perhaps an even more gutting loss on his resume.
In the other 2015 ALDS, his Houston Astros were up by four in the eighth inning of Game 4, six outs away from the ALCS. Instead, the Royals scored five times in the eighth and twice more in the ninth for a 9-6 win that forced a Game 5 won comfortably 7-2 by Kansas City.
We say these things can’t happen but time and again they do, because baseball, like life, can be random, no matter how much structure gets built or framework is put in place to try and normalize outcomes. You try, you learn, you adjust, you try again over and over and over and then when, even when you get it right, you start all over again.
“It's just a gut punch,” Danny Jansen said of his emotions when the final out was recorded. “It's tough to see the other team celebrate on your turf and have the season end. It's a tough thing when you spend so much time with each other and then the next thing you know, it's done. But grateful for this team, grateful for what I've learned and for how hard the guys in the clubhouse fought.”
So point fingers. Get mad. Be sad. Shrug it off and say on to the next. Do you. But remember, different things can be true at the same time. Baseball is the best and the worst.