In his search for something positive to say after his stunning trade to Toronto last year, Troy Tulowitzki said it might be a good thing to let someone else be a team leader for a change.
That had been his role for a decade in Colorado. Suddenly, in August 2015, he was on a team littered with leaders—Russ Martin, Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, and the newly arrived David Price, all luminaries in a championship firmament.
Perhaps Tulowitzki cannot help himself. The 2016 Blue Jays have become his team. Not his alone, mind you; Martin is right there, too. So, too, are Bautista and Donaldson. But Tulowitzki's leadership looms large, and he is unafraid to acknowledge it.
"The bottom line: since I came here and talked about winning, it's two years, two playoff experiences. I'm happy about that," he said Sunday evening.
Tulowitzki spoke during a break from the Jays' celebration in Fenway Park after they clinched a wild-card berth and home-field advantage to boot on Tuesday night against the Orioles.
He spoke without pretension. And his performance during the Blue Jays' tingling 2-1 win over the Red Sox underscored his matter-of-fact declaration.
Tulowitzki's unorthodox yet sensational work at shortstop was prominent again in the clincher, perhaps most auspiciously in the ninth inning when he threw out Mookie Betts from the hole.
"Have you ever seen a more accurate thrower on the move? Incredible," said manager John Gibbons.
An inning earlier, he had lined an RBI single to centre to snap a 1-1 tie. Upon reaching first base, his face bathed in intensity, he slammed his left fist into his right hand. That, for him, was a rare display of emotion.
"I think you guys watch me a lot," he told a clutch of reporters after the game. "At times I'm emotional—big hits or big plays—but usually I'm straight-faced, all business. But man, that was fun. I knew it was a key hit. I knew we had a chance to win the game after that."
He let his emotions fly during the clubhouse celebration. The public had not seen him smile so often since the Jays' milestone merriment last autumn after clinching the division title in Baltimore and beating Texas in the division series.
This time, he was the centerpiece, hollering and hugging and grinning and inviting teammates to join in his Facetime sessions as the beer and champagne marinated the miniature room that passes for the visitors' clubhouse in Fenway Park.
A year ago, he was a star import. Now he is at home and doing what he did in Colorado: leading the charge, quietly and firmly.
As the Jays won their last two games of the regular season, each low-scoring and each by one run, other stars shone as well, primarily pitchers.
Aaron Sanchez capped a beautiful (and controversial) season by taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning Sunday, winning his 15th game and proving he was as durable as he had predicted last winter, a contention his own employers stubbornly doubted. He finished his first full season in the starting rotation with a 3.00 ERA—tops among qualified starters in the AL.
Joe Biagini, the eccentric Rule 5 pick who stuck and starred, recorded two key outs in the eighth. (On the first, a ground ball to third, Josh Donaldson backhanded the ball and made a Tulowitzki-type throw from foul ground to nail Dustin Pedroia.)
And Roberto Osuna, throwing 97 despite his recent withering workload, closed it out. The win brought the wild-card game to Toronto and deprived Boston of home-field advantage against Cleveland in the division series.
Sanchez, Biagini and Osuna, all young and improving, complement a largely veteran contingent. Devon Travis, who homered Sunday, is part of the youth movement, too. Tulowitzki likes the contrast.
"It's good for me because I'm going to be around, hopefully for a long time," he said. "It means our future's bright."
Tuklowitzki's contract runs through 2020, his age 35 season, at a cost of $74 million, with an option for 2021. Two current veteran stalwarts, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, are free agents and may be gone by next season, although management's intentions and largesse are unknown. Martin has three years and $60 million left on his deal.
This is a team that needs an injection of youth if contention is to become a habit.
Sanchez is optimistic, although perhaps excessively so, given the state of the farm system. But flushed with Sunday's victory, which was hewn from a harsh September, perhaps his buoyancy could be forgiven.
"I've seen what they've done, really from the ground up, getting the guys they got last year to kind of bring the fans back into it and then having the guys get a taste of that last year and then showing up this year," he said. "It means everything. Hopefully, that means down the line in years to come, we're back in this situation with guys that have been here and done it."
Sunday's game, like the two preceding it, was built on terrific pitching and defence. Given the scarcity of runs, one could argue the Jays were exceedingly fortunate to use Boston as their last-ditch path to the playoffs.
As evening fell on Fenway, Bautista was feeling the effects of spending most of the game on the bench as the designated hitter. It is an unfamiliar role for a proud man accustomed to playing every game in right field, but it is clear that Gibbons prefers the defensive advantage of Ezequiel Carrera.
So Bautista was feeling a tad nervous as the game wore on, first 1-0 for the Jays, then 1-1, then, finally, a one-run win for Toronto.
"It's a little bit more nerve-racking obviously because you're not focused 100 percent on defence because you're DH-ing," Bautista said. "It's an adjustment. If I would be a person that would bite their nails, I would've been doing that. I was on the edge of my seat all night."
But Tulowitzki and Donaldson dazzled on defence, Tulowitzki got the big hit and the young guns (plus veteran Brett Cecil) took care of the pitching.
And when it was over, Tulowitzki was right in the middle of the revelry, letting his emotions loose for a change. It was fun to watch, just as it has been fun to watch his solemn side do battle on the field all season.