September seems like such a long time ago.
The stale taste of those doldrums lingered far too long; a miasma of blown leads, impotent offense, the fist-clenching frustration of watching the ubiquitous Boston Red Sox explode into an 11-game winning streak reminding us of who we were at this same time last year, the team everyone expected us to be again.
To be fair, the entire 2016 season seems like a long time ago. The prevailing wisdom was that the unfulfilled promise of the otherwise magical 2015 run of the Toronto Blue Jays, thwarted at the last mile by the eventual champion Kansas City Royals, was mere dress rehearsal for greater destinies ahead. The same core was back, the pitching had (ostensibly) been fortified, and it was merely a matter of sitting back and watching home runs fly out of stadiums on a cakewalk back to glory.
The baseball gods are never inclined to make things that easy.
There was a point in 2015 where you just expected the Jays to go out and win every game, and even in the ones they lost, they made it close. But for much of this season, the 2016 squad felt like shells of their former selves; well-meaning guys who in the end just couldn’t get it done, and let their obvious frustrations play across squinting faces at each crushing swing and miss. When a string of bad games plunged the Blue Jays permanently out of first place just as the kids they’d inspired were shuffling back to school, a colleague of mine sent me a quick email: “Looks like we won’t be troubled by October baseball this year.”
I wasn’t disinclined to agree with him, nor was most of baseball. There were too many more exciting stories for which to write tantalizing opening paragraphs: the Chicago Cubs possibly smashing the infamous Goat Curse, the Giants reasserting their even-year playoff dominance, David Ortiz closing his storied career with a World Series ring on his finger. As late as the last week of September the Blue Jays were yesterday’s news. Move along folks, nothing more to see here.
For Blue Jays fans, it was as if an entire fabled era was stumbling to a whimpering close. The image of a saddened Edwin Encarnacion, free agency and greener pastures looming, lingering in the dugout after a shattering shutout loss to the Baltimore Orioles and gazing one last time out at the stadium in which he worried he’d never get to trot his parrot again, epitomized what everyone was feeling.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
It couldn’t end like this.
The Blue Jays stumbled into Fenway Park largely written off by the entire sport. The Red Sox had clinched the AL East a few days earlier (thanks to a Blue Jays loss) but were playing for home field advantage in the playoffs, so they weren’t inclined to make things any easier. Nor did they, taking the first game in typical Red Sox fashion – and mirroring the Jays’ struggles in April – as Ortiz secured the win with a two-run blast off Brett Cecil. Veteran political campaigners call it “the stench of death” – a creeping, settling dread that the end is certain no matter how much time remains on the clock. These are the hardest moments to be a fan, of any team.
The game has nine innings and the season has 162 games, and a quote from Vanilla Sky looms large: every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.
In Game 161, Kevin Pillar’s bat came to life. In Game 162, Aaron Sanchez no-hit the hardest slugging team in the major leagues for seven innings. And the grind during the regular season against the home-run happy Baltimore Orioles ensured that the Blue Jays had a winning record against them and thus would have home field advantage for the crucial do-or-die wild card game – at the loudest, most raucous ballpark in the majors (remember when Dave Winfield had to beg for more noise?)
Victories are sweet but temporary, and as soon as the champagne and beer dried off the plastic strung over the clubhouse, the next challenge awaited. A rematch with the hated Texas Rangers, they of the year-long festering butthurts over getting bat-flipped to the golf courses in 2015, who had initiated the brawl in May that had left Jose Bautista with a bruised face from Rougned Odor’s fist. Still looking to settle the score, the Rangers had cruised to first place in the weak AL West division and the best overall record in the league and hadn’t had to play meaningful baseball in weeks. But they were hungry. By all stats they were in a better position. The Blue Jays were banged up and their relief corps was in trouble again: seventh-inning shutdown expert Joaquin Benoit was out with a torn calf muscle sustained in a stupid brawl against the Yankees, lightning-armed eighth-inning setup man Jason Grilli was suddenly tossing wiffle balls, and indispensable closer Roberto Osuna had departed the wild card game with a strained shoulder.
Most sportswriters were favoring the Rangers in four.
The game is played by nine men at a time, but each individual contest usually has one hero. In Game 1 it was Marco Estrada, befuddling the Rangers with his changeup and blanking them into the ninth as a long-dormant Jays offense piled up 10 runs. In Game 2 it was Roberto Osuna, with “NO PANIC” written on his shoes, quieting the last two innings and securing a squeaker of a 5-3 victory and sending the Jays home with only one game left to win (yet still with question marks as reliable leadoff man Devon Travis was held out with a bone bruise and Francisco Liriano took a terrifying, mild concussion-inducing shot to the back of the head off Carlos Gomez’s bat). Game 3 seemed like it was fated to belong to Aaron Sanchez again. That’s how the baseball gods would want it, right?
The Rangers, however, were not going to fold up and go quietly, and they hammered Sanchez for 6 runs, two of them coming on a home run from the hated Rougned Odor, the last coming on a Mitch Moreland double that was two inches from being another rally-ending diving catch from Kevin Pillar.
Sphincters clenched across Canada.
Even though we knew there would be a Game 4 to right the ship should this one collapse, watching the lead slip away was gutting. We’d been in that position last year, and we rallied from a two game deficit to claim three straight and advance. We knew Texas was aching to do the same, seemingly lacking only the inspiration of a close, hard-fought win to reignite the competitive spirit that had notched them 95 victories.
To the bullpens then.
The Jays tied the game at 6 apiece as Texas reliever Keone Kela threw the ball past catcher Jonathan Lucroy with the bases loaded, allowing Troy Tulowitzki to trot in from third. But Nomar Mazara robbed Ezequiel Carrera of a bases-clearing double, and then on came Matt Bush, the 99 mph fireballer who had ignited the entire May mess by drilling Jose Bautista in his last at bat. Inspired by Encarnacion’s wild card walk off, Jay after Jay hoping to be this game’s savior kept swinging through Bush’s heat, leading once again to extra innings. Manager John Gibbons gambled twice in as many games with Roberto Osuna’s arm, keeping him on the mound for two innings and recognizing that if the Jays couldn’t win it in the bottom half, his best relievers were done, and it would be left to the less reliable second tier to try to hold the dangerous Rangers at bay. Bush came back out for a third straight inning and kept firing in unhittable strikes.
Until Josh Donaldson finally connected and hurtled into second.
The Rangers were not inclined to let Encarnacion repeat his triumph, so they gave him a free pass to first. Jose Bautista came to the plate, but was deprived of a storybook victory against the guy who’d plunked him by instead striking out. So it would be left to Russell Martin, who hadn’t had a hit so far in the postseason until sending a solo blast over the wall in the first. Martin was baffled by Bush, floundering into a quick 0-2 count before battling back, smartly letting balls go by and fouling off strikes to get him into 3-2 and Texas hungering for a ground ball double play. Donaldson danced off second, Encarnacion waited calmly at first.
The pitch came. Martin swung, and there it went, bouncing perfectly to shortstop Elvis Andrus, who relayed it to Rougned Odor at second to get Edwin, before relaying it to Mitch Moreland at first.
But Odor’s throw bounced off the dirt and dragged Moreland off the bag. Martin was safe. And meanwhile, no one had noticed that Donaldson was running hard for home, risking the game on a desperate charge on a wonky hip. Moreland threw to catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who let the ball bounce out of his glove as he wheeled to tag the sliding Donaldson.
Rangers manager Jeff Banister needlessly delayed the celebration by asking for a review of Encarnacion’s slide at second, hoping that he might have broken the grating “Chase Utley Rule” by interfering with Odor’s throw. Had the New York office reversed the call, the stadium would have exploded and made the embarrassing can toss at an Orioles outfielder in the wild card look like a child’s tea party. But Encarnacion’s slide was perfectly legal, and the Blue Jays walked off in triumph. On to the ALCS for a second year in a row, a postseason sweep for the first time ever, and a six-game winning streak putting the wind at their backs. From September slumps to October accomplishments. From yesterday’s news to prohibitive favorites, unfinished business awaiting starting Friday in either Boston or Cleveland.
Someone more learned than myself said that baseball is stretches of disappointment punctuated by small miracles, and the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays have achieved a string of miracles in the last few weeks that have suddenly made them the most exciting team in baseball. Yet they aren’t really miracles; they are the product of a team that has fought and clutched and grinded through abject humiliations to forge a formidable adversary for anyone who suits up against them. From starting pitching to hitting to defense to the relief corps, every man in the blue and white is firing on all cylinders. Each win has been earned. Last year there were too many weak links, and the newness of the postseason experience let nerves undermine the consistent effort needed to close the deal against the Royals.
It feels different this time. As if we’re finally riding a tide that no wall can break. As if our team is absolutely stacked with heroes-in-waiting, as if each game is a chance to see another miracle.
This is the unfinished story of 2016, the story that those eager to crown other teams without letting the actual games play out first are missing. Okay, fine, the Cubs have been great and they’re a hundred years overdue, but inevitability is tedious to watch. And the Red Sox have simply worn out their welcome by making every single game a retirement ceremony for David Ortiz. There’s nothing left to write about there, while north of the border, an ignored, discounted, marginalized gang of baseballers has been bringing excitement back to the sport every single night.
And we simply can’t wait to see what’s next.