The Blue Jays Delivered Another Signature October Moment
Between Bautista's bat flip and Encarnacion's walk-off homer to eliminate Baltimore in the wild-card game, Toronto has produced some ultra-dramatic playoff moments the last two seasons.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
It was an extraordinary game. For the Blue Jays and their legion of fans, including nearly 50,000 exhausted souls in the Rogers Centre, it ended with a lightning bolt that wrenched one last incredulous cheer after an 11-inning thrill ride.
Controversy is sure to follow. Immediately, it targeted Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who reserved his closer for a moment that never came. And more criticism, perhaps, for a man accustomed to it, Jays manager John Gibbons, who ran out his own closer for a second inning, then had to relieve him because of a shoulder injury.
The outcome of Tuesday night's splendid spectacle sent the jubilant Blue Jays soaring to Texas and the Orioles riding home on a flight of despair. Edwin Encarnacion's walk-off three-run homer lifted Toronto to a 5-2 victory in the American League wild-card game that both teams entered with identical records.
"If you're a fan of baseball, and not just riding whatever, it was really a beautiful game and fun to be a part of," Gibbons said.
His hair soaked in champagne, Gibbons spoke during a clubhouse celebration that was significantly more subdued than the revelry on Sunday night after the Jays beat Boston. That one was wild. This one was brief, and for good reason: Tuesday's game was a sudden-death play-in to the playoffs, with no time to waste before getting down to business in Texas for a rematch of last year's remarkable division series.
Texas hosts the first two games in the best-of-five set. It comes to Toronto on Sunday.
Both managers sparked controversy before the game when they announced their starting pitchers. But both moves paid off. Toronto's Marcus Stroman pitched brilliantly for six innings. Chris Tillman made it into the fifth before Showalter went to his bullpen six times.
Showalter's final move summoned Ubaldo Jimenez, who, according to some critics, should have been his starter. Jimenez gave up two singles and Encarnacion's home run.
Meanwhile, Baltimore's perfect closer, Zach Britton, sat and stewed in the bullpen.
"He was available," Showalter said.
Britton: "It's not my job to put me in the game."
In the Toronto market, the naysayers thought Francisco Liriano should start ahead of Stroman. Liriano had better results against Baltimore. But after Stroman defied those critics, and others that insisted he should never face an Oriole batter for the third time, the Jays' beleaguered bullpen held firm.
"I know a lot of people doubted me coming into this start," said Stroman, who allowed four hits, including Mark Trumbo's two-run homer. "I know a lot of people didn't want me to start. I know a lot of people doubted our team against the Orioles. But I can't tell you enough how confident this group is inside this clubhouse and how much we don't care about outside opinions."
But he cared a lot for the noisy opinions of the Jays' fans at the Rogers Centre.
"I feel like I'm able to just feed off that energy, that emotion of the crowd," he said. "The louder it is, I feel like I'm able to hone it in when I need to."
Ready for the long relief role Gibbons had planned for him, Liriano came in at the end, working 1.2 perfect innings after Roberto Osuna felt a tug in the front of his pitching shoulder in the 10th.
Osuna was in fine spirits after the game. The early diagnosis was vague, as it often is. Any pitcher's shoulder injury comes with a sense of foreboding, but Osuna was optimistic.
The 21-year-old closer has pitched in seven of the team's past 11 games, throwing 156 pitches to 33 batters over 8.1 innings. He set down the side in order in the ninth to preserve the 2-2 tie, then, in the process of retiring Chris Davis to open the 10th, he felt "a big stretch" in his shoulder.
"The doctor told me I was going to be fine," Osuna said. "I just need a couple days off. I've been pitching a lot lately. He thinks it's just fatigue."
Gibbons, after an early report from the medical staff, had this to say: "We have no idea (about the prognosis). They don't think it's a big deal."
At the end, Encarnacion was the big deal, a role he has so often filled over the past six years. Fine pitching and firm defence got the Jays to the 11th before Encarnacion delivered the sixth walk-off homer of his career.
"It was a very special moment and a very special opportunity for me to get it," he said through a translator. "Thank God I did the job, and it worked out for us pretty well."
Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers in what might be his final season as a Blue Jay, often relies on that sort of understatement, as Devon Travis testified. Travis, as well as other teammates, spoke of the respect they have for Encarnacion's baseball wisdom as well as his enormous talent.
"I don't ever want to be in a clubhouse where he's on the opposing side, I'll tell you that," Travis said. "He's incredible. He's a guy of very few words. When he speaks, though, my ears are very, very open."
Echoed Kevin Pillar: "We had the right guy up at the right time. He's been the one guy throughout the whole year that's been in the lineup and healthy, carried this team when guys were out. He doesn't get enough credit for what he does. He should be in the MVP conversation. He plays a helluva first base (and) doesn't get enough recognition for that."
Blue Jays fans need no reminder of the enmity between Toronto and Texas. It emerged after Jose Bautista's famous bat flip punctuated his dramatic homer in Game 5 of last year's ALDS. It erupted again in May of this year after Matt Bush deliberately hit Bautista, and Bautista retorted with a hard (and illegal) slide into second base to break up a double play, and second baseman Rougned Odor replied with a push and a punch to Bautista's face. General mayhem ensued.
"I think it's going to be a good series for the fans," Russell Martin said. "We already know what's been going on between us this year and last year, so there's going to be some emotions flying high. I'm sure the fans are going to get into it. It's going to be special. But it's an opportunity. We definitely like it."
Others tried to play down the likelihood of renewed fireworks. Bautista, whose homer gave his team an early lead against Baltimore, patiently answered question after question about the bad blood, saying he will simply concentrate on his job.
"Just focus on winning ball games," he said. "Try to let the game dictate what we do, and focus on executing."
Presumably, that last part did not pertain to Rougned Odor.