MINNEAPOLIS – Among the challenges post-season baseball presents is the need to both play like it’s any other day while pushing aside all the pomp and circumstance, to stay consistent in routine and mindset while also recognizing the urgency of the moment.
Because the need to earn tomorrows comes quickly, especially in the wild-card round, and that’s where the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves after a 3-1 Game 1 loss Tuesday, a pair of Royce Lewis homers helping the Minnesota Twins end an 18-game playoff losing streak that hung on them like an anvil.
The AL Central champion’s first post-season win since 2004 extended the Blue Jays’ own playoff losing skid to six games and for all the talk about learning from past experiences, a hunger to last year’s wild-card series against the Seattle Mariners behind, here they are in an all-too-familiar bind.
“Nothing’s been easy for us all year,” said centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who had an RBI single among his two hits and a walk. “Not ideal losing today, but it’s OK. They had a couple more big hits than us, didn’t do anything after the second homer from Lewis. It’s just we had trouble trying to get something going all day. Come out ready to go and see what happens.”
Jose Berrios is now tasked with extending his team’s season against the team that traded him to Toronto two summers ago. Sonny Gray will go opposite him seeking to clamp down on an offence that twice was mere feet away from game-changing blows, but ultimately delivered a frustration felt so often on the path to October.
“I don’t think you have time for frustration in playoff games,” said Brandon Belt, the sage veteran whose been-there, done-that approach will help a core that in its last two playoff series couldn’t pick itself up from the mat. “We hit some balls hard and they made some good plays. That’s part of it. That wins you ballgames in the playoffs. They did it today and we didn’t. Hopefully tomorrow we can get back on it.”
And, of course, in an environment that magnifies everything, the Blue Jays left much to parse, most notably Bo Bichette’s daring dash home in the fourth when Kevin Kiermaier’s chopper rolled under Jorge Polanco’s glove and Carlos Correa charged across the infield to scoop the ball and fire a strike home to get his fellow shortstop.
Should he have gone?
Bichette had already made the turn at third with Correa, fresh off the injured list due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot, some 60 feet from the ball. Not going would have looked terrible.
But the risk, down three runs, of running the team out of a big inning with Matt Chapman due up with the bases loaded, and Pablo Lopez under duress for the first time, may very well have outweighed the rewards.
“I thought it was worth the chance,” said Bichette. “I thought he’d have to make a great play to get me out and he did.”
To contextualize just how great a play it was, look at where Correa is at relative to the ball as Bichette rounds third base.
Bichette went to third to home in 3.54 seconds, as measured by Statcast, while Correa needed 0.53 seconds to scoop the ball bare-handed and throw home, leaving three seconds for him to charge the ball, for the ball to travel home and for catcher Ryan Jeffers to apply the tag.
On the field, those calculations have to be made in real-time.
“I didn’t have a problem with that play,” said Kiermaier. “There aren’t many people who make that play and Correa made a made a phenomenal play. Wish he didn’t. It’s easy to sit here and say could have, would have, should have. Made a phenomenal play. We got beat today. Come out tomorrow ready to go.”
Added Belt: “In the playoffs, I think it’s OK to be aggressive and it just didn’t work out. Correa made a great play. He’s basically got to get that ball and make a perfect throw home and that’s what he did. Stuff like that happens. This is the time you really have to put it behind you and move on.”
If this isn’t October, everyone is tipping their cap to Correa and praising Bichette for forcing him to make a freakishly difficult play. But as Blue Jays manager John Schneider said before the game, “you have to just understand that any little thing can be a big play, whether it’s getting a guy over, or a dirt-ball read, or a defensive play or a walk.”
The same applies to Kevin Gausman twice challenging Lewis, a very good fastball hitter, with fastballs, once in a full count, once down 3-1, with both ending up over the wall, making for an incredible return from a left hamstring strain by the 24-year-old rookie.
His first homer came in the first one after Canadian Edouard Julien led off with a walk, turning on a 97.4-m.p.h. fastball on the inner edge and sending it over the left-field wall. Then in the third, Gausman missed his spot at 3-1, leaving a 93.5-m.p.h. heater middle-middle for Lewis to send 397 feet to right-centre.
That was all the damage against Gausman, who was taunted mercilessly by a Target Field crowd of 38,450 as he worked around three hits and three walks in his four innings of work.
And though Gausman was frustrated by Andy Fletcher’s strike zone in the first, he was on the ropes in the second with two on and the count 3-2 to Julien and got the call on a splitter that appeared to be off the plate.
The fateful fourth that ended with Bichette’s dash home began with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., ripping a 372-foot liner to right that Max Kepler caught against the wall.
A more pivotal moment came in the sixth, after Kiermaier’s RBI single had cut the Twins lead to 3-1, and Matt Chapman drove a 98.3-m.p.h. fastball from Louie Varland 401 feet to right-centre only to watch Michael A. Taylor calmly glide to the wall and make a leaping grab.
The Blue Jays squandered a leadoff double by Guerrero in the eighth but couldn’t do enough damage before the scarily dominant Jhoan Duran took over in the ninth and worked around a two-out walk to Whit Merrifield, with George Springer ripping a ball at 103.7 m.p.h. that a diving Donovan Solano snagged at first and relayed to the closer for the final out.
A couple of inches difference on all three balls and the Blue Jays are playing for a trip to Houston on Wednesday.
Instead, it’s season-on-the-line time and everyone, save for Gausman, will be available, including starter Chris Bassitt, said Schneider, speaking to the all-hands-on-deck approach the Blue Jays will take.
Before the game, Schneider said “the fact that the ending can be very near, I think that fuels these guys. Over the course of the season you have the time to wait around for it to come. I think, unfortunately, it didn’t come as consistently as we had hoped. So, yeah, you want to have a little bit more, ‘OK, here we go,’ but at the same time you have to really just do what you’re good at.”
“I’ve been looking forward to this group having this chance to really kind of have everything on the table for a while now,” he added. “So we’re here and I’m excited to see how they come out.”
Especially now that they have to earn their tomorrows.