Jays manager John Gibbons wasn’t ready to say it’s a victory his team could ride into the playoffs. It was just an important one that will help get them there.
“It’s one of those games that you end up coughing up the lead, a small lead, but you end up coughing it up and you come back and win it. Who knows what that does for us?” Gibbons said. “We’ll find out.”
The late craziness was the opposite of the first few innings.
Having been shut out by the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday and then blanked in the first two games of this series in Toronto, the Yankees didn’t give Estrada many problems until Gregorius belted a cutter on a 1-1 count that carried out of the park in the right-field alley for his 19th homer of the season.
Estrada was able to grind through the rest of the seventh inning, striking out Torreyes with a yell to end it.
“Once I struck out the last guy to make the third out, it was a great feeling,” Estrada said. “I couldn’t hold back and I kind of yelled something out. I was excited, I was pumped, and like I said, it was just a fun game to watch today.”
For the Jays, the story penned in the first three games of this four-game set against the Yankees — one that finishes Monday with 20-game winner J.A. Happ heading to the hill for Toronto — is that of strong starting pitching.
Francisco Liriano, Stroman, and now Estrada have all done their part.
“I’m glad our pitching is back to what it’s been all year, basically,” Estrada said.
But it wasn’t easy for the 39-year-old right-hander, who has allowed just one earned run in 23 2/3 innings since being acquired from the Seattle Mariners. After allowing a leadoff double to Brett Gardner and inducing a flyout from Jacoby Ellsbury, Benoit faced Gary Sanchez, the Yankees phenom who has taken the major leagues by storm since his late-summer call-up. Earlier this month he became the quickest player in baseball history to hit 19 homers.
The sold-out Rogers Centre crowd seemed to recognize the importance of the at-bat as they serenaded the 24-year-old reincarnation of Babe Ruth with a derisive “GA-RY! GA-RY” jeer. Benoit got ahead of Sanchez 0-2, but the rookie fought off three tough pitches and eventually worked the count full before Benoit won the nine-pitch battle with a hard slider in the dirt.
“It took a bit longer than I wanted, but it was a good battle,” Benoit said. “He swung through my slider on the first pitch and I tried not to show him the slider again until the end of the at-bat because I could see he was looking for it.”
Benoit, who is usually stoic on the mound, had a Jason-Grilli-esque celebration after the inning’s final out.
After Roberto Osuna coughed up the lead in the top of the ninth inning, Toronto rallied in the bottom half by scoring two of its own, capped off by a walk-off infield single from Edwin Encarnacion, as the Blue Jays maintained their lead for the top AL wild card spot.
Marco Estrada was great again. He deserved a win, but I’m sure he’s just as happy the team won. Marco went 7 innings, allowed just 4 hits, 2 walks with 7 strikeouts. His one earned run was a Didi Gregorius home run to lead off the 7th inning.
Marco got in more trouble in the 7th, giving up a single and a walk and making us think he should come out of the game. Maybe he should have come out, but he managed to get out of the inning. His 7th went home run, strikeout, single, strikeout, walk, strikeout.
Joaquin Benoit gave up a lead off double, in the 8th, but got out of the inning with a fly out and a pair of strikeouts.
Maybe we should have scored more, we had 9 hits and 6 walks, but we scored enough. Jose Bautista reached 4 times, with a homer, the big single and 2 walks.
“Great game today,” the Blue Jays starter said. “Well-played baseball. We bunted a few times, which was huge. I like seeing these things. We don’t always need a homer to win these games. It was a fun game to watch.”
Estrada’s observations might not quite pass muster on those truth meters the U.S. media are using these days. Let us test his truthiness.
1. Fun? Sure, it was fun at the end, for Estrada, his teammates and nearly 48,000 excited and emotionally drained fans at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays blew a late lead in the top of the ninth and regained it in the bottom half and won 4-3 on a little bitty hit by one of their sluggers.
2. Well-played? Those last few innings had some messy moments, especially for the Yankees and Dellin Betances, their towering, pratfall-prone closer.
3. No need for a homer? They needed one from Jose Bautista in this game, and for six innings, it was the only run on the board.
4. Those bunts? Well, there were two, and a couple failed attempts in questionable situations, and the last of the bunts, by Ezequiel Carrera in the bottom of the ninth, worked out nicely for the Jays because it squeezed home the tying run. Pitcher Tyler Clippard ran up to it and used his glove like whisk broom. His errant swat forced catcher Gary Sanchez into a clumsy cartwheel as the ball scooted past him and Melvin Upton Jr. scored standing up.
The Blue Jays looked like they already had the game locked earlier, though. Roberto Osuna entered with a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth but allowed two runs on three hits, just his fourth blown save of the season.
Marco Estrada pitched very well for the second consecutive outing, allowing just one run, a solo homer, on four hits over seven innings of work. Estrada struck out seven and walked just two batters. Joaquin Benoit struck out two batters in a scoreless eighth to bridge the gap to Osuna.
Toronto’s offence earlier in the ball game was thanks to Jose Bautista, who played the role of hero on Saturday with a three-run home run. In his second at-bat of the game in the fourth inning, Bautista found the seats again with a solo shot. He also brought in Donaldson in the eighth with a single that, at the time, was the go-ahead run.
Despite the win, Toronto did continue to struggle with strikeouts as they racked up 12. Devon Travis picked up three out of the leadoff spot while Russell Martin and Carrera both struck out twice.
Upton had gone first to third on a Pillar single through the hole at second. “I was going the whole time,” said Upton, of dashing from first to third on the bunt. “I knew he had to make a perfect throw so I was just trying to be aggressive right there and get to third base.’’
He figured Carrera might then bunt. “Once I saw it down, I made a pretty good break for it.”
Carrera’s gambit unfolded as a hit and an RBI and a simultaneous error by reliever Tyler Clippard, who was burned late for the second straight game. Carrera reached second when Clippard opted to field the bunt and flipped home messily, a poor decision to gamble against the fleet-footed Upton rather than take the easier out at first. Pillar advanced to third on the error with nobody out.
Hitting just .156 entering Sunday’s game and one of the few Jays who’s an accomplished bunter — six successful on the season — Carrera had his mind well made up as he stepped into the box, with zero input from the manager.
“You never go for a squeeze with no outs,” said Gibbons afterward, which is why Upton wasn’t already running on the pitch. “Too many bad things can happen.’’
Lord knows the bad stuff had piled up for Toronto through much of September. But Carrera was thinking outside the box.
“It was not coming from the manager. It was from me. I just anticipated it, the play. I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it on the first pitch, so I did it.”
A splitter, it was.
The Blue Jays are typically a home run hitting team, but on Sunday, they found another way to produce on offence. Scott MacArthur has more on Ezequiel Carrera’s surprise, game-tying squeeze in the ninth inning.
Given the Blue Jays’ current place in the standings, and within the context of the number of teams in the same mix, it is certainly plausible that they will need to use their best pitchers in the final weekend of the regular season to ensure that they continue to play.
And should chaos ensue, they may even need to fight their way through tie-breaker games just to make it to a Wild Card showdown. To say the least, this is sub-optimal.
Conventional wisdom suggests this puts a team with the Wild Card berth at an instant disadvantage for the frantic best-of-five LDS. Your best pitcher has been spent simply to get past that one-game playoff, meaning they may not be ready to return before the third game, and are likely to get only a single start in the series.
In the more chaotic scenario of a tie-breaker, this could mean that you are relying on your number three starter by the time you are opening a series, facing a division winner. And for those who root for “Team Entropy” (the term Sports Illustrated writer Jay Jaffe coined for cheering for the most muddied, tie-laden end to a season), you could imagine a scenario where a team burns through three or more starters before even making it to an actual series.
But if there is a silver lining to all this angst and stress, it lies within a question that has been tossed around by fans and media over the past few weeks: If the Blue Jays end up in a must-win game, who do you start?
The fact that this is a question, or isn’t completely evident might strike some as an additional worry, and a sign that the Blue Jays lack a “true ace” who stands out as the clear answer. However, that hasn’t been the focus of discussion when this comes up, as most have mentioned three legitimate candidates for this role: Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada.
But far from being out of gas, Grilli has bounced back in a huge way. In the seven games since his Sept. 6 appearance, the hard-throwing right-hander has given up all of three hits in six innings and zero runs. Saturday’s game was one of his best performances to date as a Jay.
He was brought in to face the New York Yankees in relief of starter Marcus Stroman in the eighth inning with the score 0-0 and the game on the line. Grilli got Aaron Hicks to ground out, struck out Brian McCann looking (has now fanned at least one batter in 36 of his last 41 games) and then gave up a triple to third baseman Ronald Torreyes. With Torreyes bouncing around third, Grilli focussed in on pinch-hitter Billy Butler and struck him out swinging — as usual screaming and pumping his arm in celebration as he walked off the mound. In the bottom of the inning, Jose Bautista hit a three-run homer for the Jays to win the game 3-0.
Afterwards, Toronto manager was asked what Grilli has meant to the Jays since they acquired him on May 31.
“You can’t say enough good things about what he’s done since he’s been here,” said Gibbons. “Same with (Joaquin) Benoit. Without those two guys we’re not sitting where we’re at right now. We’re probably playing for the off-season if you want to know the truth.”
But what a lot of fans may not realize, or at least aren’t thinking about at this point, is that Joey Bats’ remaining days with the Jays might be counted on two hands. There are seven regular season games left, and then the post-season, and after that Bautista becomes a free agent with no guarantees that he’ll be returning to Toronto. Thursday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles could be the last time Bautista wears a Toronto uniform at the Rogers Centre. How does that strike you?
After hitting a home run for the second straight game against the New York Yankees on Sunday, Bautista was asked if he was feeling emotional or nostalgic given the fact that after such a great career with the Jays his days with the club may be numbered. He’s been with the team since 2008 and sits in the top five in many offensive categories, including home runs, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS, and will one day likely have his name put on the team’s Wall of Fame.
“I’m not trying to think about that,” said Bautista. “I’m trying to finish the season strong, stay positive and focus on this season. I think we have a chance to do something pretty special and I’m dedicating 100% of my focus to that.”
“Nice try,” a Jays beat writer said to his colleague who asked Bautista if he was feeling at all nostalgic.
Of course Bautista won’t admit to any of that. He’s got a job to do and clearly he’s in a zone. The Santo Domingo native picked up two hits and two walks in the victory over the Yankees, including a fourth-inning home run off New York starter Michael Pineda to put Toronto ahead 1-0, extending his on-base streak to 32 games, his longest streak since 37 straight in 2014. He has homered in three of his last four games. Sunday’s blast to left was his 15th go-ahead shot of the season. He’s also recorded multiple RBIs in three straight games and has collected eight RBIs in the past four.
“He’s a dangerous hitter no matter what,” said Sunday’s starter Marco Estrada. “I don’t care how cold or hot he is, he’s dangerous no matter what. Just seeing his name in the lineup I know puts fear in the other team. So to have that guy start heating up, that’s dangerous. We’ve already got a dangerous lineup, and we need him. We need everybody on this team but when you have your 1-3 hitters swinging the bat really well and you got your 3-4 hitter (Bautista) starting to heat up a bit, it’s going to get fun for us.”
“It looks like he’s heating up at the right time,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, perhaps wishfully, said after the Bautista-fuelled 3-0 win. “Jose’s been known to do some things at key spots. I was sitting there on the bench with (bench coach) DeMarlo (Hale) and I mentioned that to him. Right guy, right time, basically.”
It was the big blow Blue Jays fans have come to expect from the bat-flipping Bautista, who decided to use teammate Kevin Pillar’s lumber to do the damage.
“I was just switching it up,” Bautista said. “From time to time, I think, we tend to do that. Not necessarily something that has to do with being superstitious, but, I don’t know, I picked one up, it felt good and I rolled with it.
“I used it once in Seattle and a couple times (Friday) and a couple times today.”
Asked if he’s starting to feel like himself again, Bautista bristled, but allowed things are starting to go his way.
Over the past week, Bautista has hit .286 with a pair of home runs, while his on-base percentage, down to .310 and .329 in the months of July and August, respectively, has been hovering in the .400 range during the month of September.
“Yeah, it’s baseball,” Bautista offered when asked if there’s a reason he’s been having more success lately. “You go through times where you don’t do so well and other times where you do better. It’s what happens.”
But health has to be a part of it, especially considering his DL stints have been due to turf toe and a knee sprain.
When he’s not hurt (and he’s hurt an awful lot), Bautista has gotten his numbers. But until the last few days, he has felt like a peripheral figure on what used to be his team.
“He’s the guy,” starter Marcus Stroman said after the game. “He’s been the guy here for a long time and we count on him to be big in those spots.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s only half-true.
These Jays are, in order, Josh Donaldson’s team, Edwin Encarnacion’s team, Russell Martin’s team and Troy Tulowitzki’s team long before they are Bautista’s team. That’s what happens when aging stars who led entirely by on-field example lose a step.
As his on-field presence diminished, so did his clubhouse dominance. Bautista’s swagger dimmed. Rather than playfully insufferable, he became simply brittle. He didn’t want to talk because he knew what you wanted to talk about – either his decline or free agency or how his decline was going to cost him a lot of money in free agency.
He came back to life in Seattle after hitting a ninth-inning, game-tying home run.
There was a minor key flip of the bat. He began trotting backward as he watched the ball go over the wall. For a guy sitting on 19 home runs at that point in the season – fifth highest on his own team – the Babe Ruth act was a bit much.
But a large part of the reason Toronto loves Bautista so much is knowing that everyone else despises him. There is no local baseball comparison to the place he occupies in this city’s imagination. He’s our contemporary Tiger Williams.
With the Blue Jays fighting for their playoff lives, Bautista could not have had a bigger game.
At this point in his career as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, one really shouldn’t be surprised when Jose Bautista comes through with a big hit in a pivotal moment. Because he’s been doing it for years now. Bautista has a flair for the dramatic and a knack for coming up with the big hit.
Twice this week, Jose Bautista has come up with a game-tying or go-ahead home run. On Friday night, he delivered the decisive blow to the Yankees with a two-run double in the Blue Jays’ convincing 9-0 victory.
When the Blue Jays were desperate for a big hit from one of their star players, Jose Bautista delivered.
It’s still remarkable to me that players like Jose Bautista have the uncanny ability to not let the gravity of the game faze them. Instead, they have the incredible tendency to slow down the game and deliver big plays at the most crucial time.
At the very least, Jose Bautista can always be counted on to get on base. He’s posted an OBP of .358 or better the past seven consecutive seasons. Despite going on the DL for one-quarter of the season, he still has the seventh most walks in the American League this year.
But as great as it is to reach base via a base on balls, I think we can all agree that Jose Bautista is at his very best when he’s delivering a big hit and channeling his namesake: Joey Bats.
Christian Williams, who just turned 22 in September, was the club’s everyday first baseman. While I was very impressed with Williams’s ability to make hard contact when I saw him in spring training, it didn’t manifest itself as much in his move to the Northwest league. Williams did tie for the club lead in home runs (four) but hit .236/.341/.340 in 249 plate appearances. Still, his 12.4% walk rate was very good and his 22.1% strikeout rate not bad. Williams will almost surely move up to Lansing in 2017 and try to improve on a decent but not great season in 2016.
One area Woodman wants to improve in his offensive game is lowering his number of strikeouts. Being fanned 85 times in 2016 wasn’t the perfect scenario for the young outfielder and he knows it. Planning on addressing this issue during the off-season, the prospect hopes to enter camp next spring with a stronger understanding on hitting at the professional level.
“I want to focus on contact and not striking out as much this off-season,” stated Woodman. “I want to be able to identify my pitch better and make contact with it more often.”
But Woodman is more than just a solid bat, he’s also defensively sound in the outfield. Splitting his time between center and right last season, Woodman maintained a .992 fielding percentage in his 487 innings in the field.
Committing just one error and picking up four outfield assists was a nice way to cap off his first pro year. The prospect discusses what he likes best about the development of his defensive game.
“My defense is coming along well,” said Woodman. “It’s about getting your footwork right and more live reads in the outfield.”
Obviously, there’s some adjustments between the amateur and professional game. But for Woodman, it’s pretty much business as usual, except for the increased playing time at the next level.
“Playing every day is the biggest difference,” explained Woodman. “You only get a couple days off in professional baseball. You really need to keep up with your game to compete every day.”