TORONTO – These September games of consequence are hard enough to win even without having to overcome misplays minor and major, not to mention the oxygen-sucking pursuit of Roger Maris’ American League home run record of 61 spotlighted beyond proportion.
Yet there the Toronto Blue Jays were Wednesday night, one win plus a Baltimore Orioles loss at Boston away from locking up a wild-card berth, fighting through more self-inflicted wounds, a dominant Gerrit Cole and Judge’s milestone swing, tagged historic a touch too liberally when, however you feel about it, Barry Bonds’ 73 still stands in the record books.
The way it ended, an 8-3 New York Yankees victory that completed a series win a day after they clinched the American League East, left the Blue Jays hanging with a magic number of one thanks to Boston beating Baltimore 3-1.
Their clinch could come as early as Thursday afternoon, if Nate Eovaldi and the Red Sox can complete a three-game sweep of the Orioles and Mike Baumann on a Blue Jays off day. Otherwise, the celebrations will have to wait until Friday when Boston arrives for a three-game series.
“We would probably like to have a little bit more spur of the moment excitement, but as long as we make it, that's all that matters,” said shortstop Bo Bichette, whose RBI single fueled a rally that raised the possibility of champagne party Wednesday. “Hopefully we get to celebrate it with the fans. That'll be cool.”
No matter when it’s celebrated, far more pertinent in the coming days is where the Blue Jays (87-69) finish in the wild-card race, with the carrot of a home series should they maintain their hold on the top spot. The Tampa Bay Rays (85-70), 2-1 losers at Cleveland, remained 1.5 games back while the Seattle Mariners (83-70), were 2.5 games back pending their game with Texas.
Closing things out is no simple task, underlined by how the Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles (80-74) are all 4-6 in their past 10 games while the Mariners, despite the softest schedule of the bunch, were 3-7 before they took the field Wednesday.
“You can kind of relate it to saying that anyone can get the last three outs in the ninth inning – no matter what, it's just a different animal,” interim manager John Schneider said of playing meaningful September baseball. “When you're so close to getting to where you want to get, yeah, there's nerves and there's excitement and all the stuff that goes into it. It doesn't matter who you're playing or you're facing. You have to have a level of focus that is just unwavering in every game, on every pitch. If you can do that, you're usually in a good spot. But it's definitely a different atmosphere and it's a different feeling when these games are going on, for sure.”
An electric Rogers Centre crowd of 37,008 took the ride with the Blue Jays on a night that had post-season vibes and so many of the ills they’ve tried to avoid.
Mitch White’s first inning included walks to Judge and Oswaldo Cabrera to open the game that fueled a three-run rally. Immediately after they erased that early deficit with a three-run sixth that started when Danny Jansen’s solo shot broke up five perfect innings from Cole, Aaron Hicks opened the seventh with a single before Judge lined the eighth straight sinker he saw from Tim Mayza into the Blue Jays bullpen for a two-run shot destined for endless media loops. To compound matters, a wild pitch moved Oswald Peraza into scoring position and he scored on Harrison Bader’s base hit, which rolled under Jackie Bradley Jr.’s glove. Two more runs crossed in the ninth when Adam Cimber fielded a Bader comebacker and threw wildly to the plate where a sure out awaited.
That the mess came the day after Vladimir Guerrero Jr. accepted responsibility for a lazy out on the bases during Tuesday’s 5-2 loss that ended a rally is all the more maddening.
Schneider said before the game that “when we play clean and take care of things that should be taken care of, physical errors aside, we're just as good as anybody in the league,” and then for a second straight night his team didn’t do the minimum needed.
The Yankees, fielding a B-lineup with Judge on top, bled White after the consecutive walks, getting a groundball RBI singles from Josh Donaldson and Peraza before a Marwin Gonzalez sacrifice fly made it 3-0 in the first. He recovered enough to get through another 2.2 innings unscathed, saying afterwards he needs to find ways to better hit the ground running.
“I get in trouble when I stop thinking and I just go into, like, attack mode, but not good attack mode, if that makes sense, where I'm just kind of brain dead and throwing the ball,” said White. “So for me, it comes down to like a good reset. Something I learned in college is find a zero in the stadium somewhere and just kind of reset there, take a couple of deep breaths and go.”
Cole took the advantage and ran with it for five perfect frames until Jansen opened the sixth with his 14th homer of the season. Whit Merrifield followed with a single, Bradley walked and after George Springer lined out to right, Bo Bichette’s infield single made it a one-run game. A Cole balk led to a Guerrero sacrifice that fly tied it 3-3.
A Teoscar Hernandez smash to centre tracked down by Bader left Bichette at second to end the sixth and Judge’s moment, avoided the previous two nights with very careful pitching, followed. Mayza challenged him three times near the heart of the plate, with the third one leaving the yard at 117.4 m.p.h. and bouncing into the waiting arms of Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who later handed the ball over to Zach Britton after the lefty walked over from the Yankees ‘pen to get it.
“I feel like we've been attacking away and trying to expand from there on the edges," said Mayza. "I just wanted to attack him with sinkers. I wanted to challenge him and try to get the ball on the ground, especially with the runner on first. And he put together a pretty good at-bat. Made the one mistake and he took advantage. So kudos to him, congratulations to him.”
The Yankees gathered to meet him outside the dugout after he circled the bases while an appreciative crowd stood and cheered, a second opposition celebration at the dome after the AL East title was won Tuesday.
Judge was a disruptive force throughout the three games, seeing 75 pitches across 15 plate appearances while collecting seven walks and scoring three times before the homer. His discipline throughout was remarkable and eventually resulted in a decisive drive that reclaimed momentum after the Blue Jays had seized it.
“For us I thought our at-bats were good that inning to get the three-spot off Gerrit. I thought our crowd was amazing, causing a balk there, as well. And then you have three trusted relievers coming in with Timmy, Yimi (Garcia) and then Jordy (Romano) if you have a lead,” said Schneider. “We count on Timmy and we've been counting on him all year. That was probably his best spot to come in and it's a good at-bat by a good player. ... It just didn't work out.”
With five losses in their past eight games, all against post-season contenders, the Blue Jays have been reminded time and again of how little margin there is against the best clubs. They aren’t the only ones feeling the heat, as after a 5-0 loss to the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night, reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray said his Mariners need “to stop looking at the (out of town) scoreboard.”
“If it was my choice, we’d turn that thing off,” he said, as relayed by Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. “Because we need to play our brand of baseball. We need to go out every day and try to win that day.”
The same applies for the Blue Jays, whose post-season berth is all but secured, and whose fate in these challenging September games and beyond remains firmly in their own hands.