The second-guessing started early. On Monday afternoon, Ross Atkins confirmed that the Blue Jays would turn to Marcus Stroman for the American League Wild Card game. This, despite all of the analytical information which screamed that Francisco Liriano was the more appropriate choice. But Stroman is John Gibbons’ guy. And just like that, the Blue Jays’ skipper had put his neck on the line once again.
By the end of Tuesday night’s contest, Gibbons looked brilliant. He had managed the game perfectly, swapping his pitchers on the fly to achieve fantastic results. Meanwhile, Gibbons’ counterpart, Buck Showalter, managed in painfully stubborn fashion. While Edwin Encarnacion’s spectacular home run will be this game’s signature memory, Gibbons’ contributions should not be overlooked.
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All Part of the Plan
Those Orioles struggled against left-handed pitching. Despite their powerful right-handed bats, lefties held them to a mere 83 wRC+ this season, compared to 107 against right-handers. The Blue Jays had two starters available for this game. They could turn to Stroman, who had a 7.04 ERA against the Orioles this season, or they could give the ball to Liriano, who carved up the O’s just one week ago. It seemed like an easy choice. However, Gibbons has never strictly adhered to analytics. As revealed in several interviews by Mark Shapiro on Monday and Tuesday, this decision really came down to Gibbons’ comfort level with Stroman. He had seen the youngster succeed in big games before. As such, Stroman got the nod, and Liriano was relegated to the bullpen.
That decision worked wonders for the Blue Jays. In short, Stroman was magnificent. He retired the first nine Orioles that he faced, needing only 34 pitches to do so. His only misstep came when Mark Trumbo, the AL leader in home runs, blasted what was honestly a quality pitch. During the 4th and 5th innings, Stroman started to falter ever so slightly. Liriano was available, but Gibbons stuck with his guy. Stroman eventually worked his way through 6.0 incredible innings, in what might be his shining moment as a Blue Jay.
With Stroman finished in the 6th, the Blue Jays had to bridge a couple of innings to get to Roberto Osuna. How did Gibbons start off? He went to Brett Cecil, while Liriano sat in the bullpen. Cecil had mixed results, and left the game with a runner on 1st, because he couldn’t get Chris Davis to bite on his curveball. In came Rule 5 draft pick Joe Biagini. The rookie was spectacular, as he collected a pair of strikeouts to end the inning. At this point, Gibbons was able to follow his usual routine. Jason Grilli came in for the 8th. The veteran had stumbled through September, but sat down the side in order on Tuesday. Once again, Gibbons was loyal to the players who got him there, and it paid off.
By the 9th inning, Gibbons didn’t have many big decisions left. Roberto Osuna was the obvious choice to come in. Osuna pitched a clean inning, which included a pivotal strikeout against Matt Wieters. Based on his recent workload, it appeared unlikely that Osuna would pitch again. However, he did come back out for the 10th inning.
Osuna was able to retire Davis to start the 10th, before he had to exit the game due to a shoulder injury. Gibbons didn’t have any other high-leverage reliever available in the bullpen. But he did have Liriano. Maybe Gibbons lucked into this one. I don’t believe so. It appeared as though he never intended to go to Liriano unless the game ran into extra innings. The plan was always to use him only if absolutely necessary. The results were phenomenal. Liriano finished off the 10th inning with a pair of groundouts. The lefty then came back in the 11th, and retired the side with ease. There is no way to know how the game might have played out had Liriano entered the game in the 5th or 6th. Fortunately, he was available when the team needed him most.
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In Came Ubaldo
After the Jays’ pitchers worked 11 strong innings against one of baseball’s most potent offences, Encarnacion finally broke through. A home run that we will see dozens of times between now and Thursday. Game over.
John Gibbons managed this game perfectly. In the Orioles dugout, Buck Showalter waited and waited and waited, but never went to Zach Britton (arguably baseball’s best reliever). Instead, with two men on and Encarnacion at the plate, Showalter relied on Ubaldo Jimenez. Showalter is a three-time AL Manager of the Year. Gibbons is on his way to Texas.