Tag Archives: Jose Bautista

How to Love a Lost Season

Ever since the first week of April, regular sports folk and professional prognosticators have been champing at the bit to pronounce a moratorium on the Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes for success in 2017.  After all the caveats about it being “early,” and all the provisos that this is a team playing inexplicably below its talent level and overdue for an unparalleled hot streak, the dog days of summer were particularly canine, with sweep and series loss piled on top of yet another sweep and too many quiet exits through the clubhouse for those remaining players who hadn’t had their years snatched away by injuries.  Here, then, perpetually ten games under .500 with September ebbing away, is where we glance up for the sight of the final nail, dangling Damocles-like, for the team’s coffin.  At least for this year.

A few weeks ago, when our old friend Edwin Encarnacion and his Cleveland posse were flattening all opposition en route to their record-breaking win streak, a few noted sports scribes opined that without a World Series win come November, said streak would be meaningless.  Which, one supposes has a degree of validity, given that not a single MLB team kicks off April with the aim of simply having a good time for a few months and shuffling off to the golf course after they finish in fourth.  Of course everyone wants to win it all.  But judging the worth of an entire season by how it ends is a bit like judging the entirety of someone’s life only by how they die.  Coughing out your last breath as a withered husk in a ramshackle nursing home as opposed to going out saving a hundred orphans from a school bus that plunged off a bridge doesn’t mean that how you lived every one of those moments beforehand becomes worthless.  Jose Bautista’s dour, sputtering finale to his Blue Jays career in 2017 will never diminish the exhilaration of the instant of The Bat Flip™ nor the many other highs of his legendary tenure with us.  2015 ALDS Game Five continues to be talked about and cherished in Jays’ fandom, while 2015 ALCS Game Six is rarely ever mentioned, the pungent sting of that disappointing October 23 faded now like an old scar.

We’re reminded constantly that baseball is a game built on failure.  29 MLB teams and the hundreds of players who stock their rosters will fail every single year.  Every team, even the World Series champ, will lose at least 54 games, and a lot of those losses will be brutal, soul-crushing agonies.  The mere fact of statistical normalization will always tend to balance out the video-game-like triumphs with equally reality-defying slumps.  For the sake of your sanity, you can’t ever pin your enjoyment of baseball on how the season concludes.  Even as in these final days 2017 cements its reputation for the Blue Jays as The Season Where Nothing Quite Went Right, there are individual moments that deserve to live on, to bring you a smile as the skies darken, the fields go quiet and you inevitably roll your eyes at every transaction made by the front office come November and onwards.

We’ll remember 2017 as the year Chris Coghlan took flight, the year Steve Pearce hit two walk-off grand slams in the same week – the latter capping an incredible comeback win after going into the ninth down 10-4 – and the year an unloved, strikeout-prone first baseman reduced largely to a late-inning defensive replacement role transformed himself into a fan-favorite, powerhouse All-Star.  We’ll remember it as the year the force of nature that is Josh Donaldson put up better numbers in basically half a season than most players do in a full 162 games.  We’ll remember a host of opposition batters looking utterly lost at Marcus Stroman’s sliders and Marco Estrada’s changeups.  We’ll remember Ryan Goins as “Mr. RISP,” Rob Refsnyder as “Refslider” and Carlos Ramirez as “Mr. Zero.”  We’ll remember those GIF-worthy moments like Darwin Barney swimming to third base, a bewildered Matt Dermody wandering off the field having forgotten that the game was over, or Gibby simply being Gibby.  And yes, we’ll even remember those infamous red jerseys.  Personally, I’ll remember my first selfie snapped field-side with my young niece, getting the chance to spend the night in one of the hotel rooms looking over center field, and of course, Jason Grilli throwing me the ball.  In light of those and uncounted thousands more precious personal experiences at the ballpark or watching or listening at home, what does it matter, really, that this year it won’t all end the way 1992 and 1993 did?

Love it, hate it, but don’t dismiss what it does to you.  Don’t discount the charge of endorphins flooding your brain when you hear just the right timbre of cracking wood that tells you that thing’s going into the upper deck (or out the exit, if JD is up at bat).  Don’t do a disservice to the nine guys working their asses off on that field to give you that charge with each play, nor to yourself for investing so much passion into the limitless possibility that tantalizes you every time one of them takes their position in the batter’s box.  Don’t think that the ultimate value of baseball lies solely in the glimmer of the World Series trophy.  It’s so much more than that.

It’s the bespectacled little kid in the Donaldson shirsey thrusting his tiny glove hopefully skyward when a foul pop tilts his way, or the explosive roar of the crowd and the home run horn burning itself into his subconscious when his hero goes deep.  Visceral, irreplaceable sensations to be recalled with a smile a decade or two hence when he’s taking his own kids to their first game – maybe in another losing season.

2017 isn’t going to be our year to win it all.  Arguably, it was never going to be our year.  But that’s okay, because we’ll be back cheering on the Blue Jays in 2018, and even if next year belongs to someone else as well, there are great baseball memories in store next season that we can’t even imagine yet.  Physics-defying plays, heart-stirring come-from-behind triumphs, and the incalculable, invaluable weirdness that often goes hand-in-glove with this unique and special game.

Like life itself, the joy in baseball has never been in seeing how it all ends.  It’s in what happens at every minute, every pitch along the way, and in having your heart simply leap at the thought of what – fastball, slider, curve or changeup – might be coming next.

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On the Day Before

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Though it’s been difficult to locate a consistent sense of hope and optimism amidst the general daily deluge of assholery and batshit nuttery that characterizes the news of late, there is one lonely island that cannot, for the moment at least, be soiled by the antics of the present inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or wherever the hell he chooses to park his flabby orange ass on any given day).  One tiny beacon that can permit liberals and conservatives alike to shelve their ideological spite and instead rejoice in the spectacle of grown, uniformed men chasing a tiny sphere of cork and horsehair around a manicured field for a few hours at a time.

Major League Baseball is back.

Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training camp on Valentine’s Day, and this Saturday, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the first time in a Grapefruit League exhibition game against their first-ever World Series rivals, the Atlanta Braves.  It’s not “real” baseball, one could argue:  the lineup will be largely absent any of the team’s stars, and it will be more of a tryout for the second-stringers and the minor leaguers hopeful of even just a solitary shot in The Show.  But it’s a welcome dawn after a long night, when the storybook triumph of the Chicago Cubs after 108 years without a championship faded with the stadium lights and the world awakened on November 9th to its worst hangover in our young lifetimes.  We’ve craved the purity and the innocence of the pitch and the swing and the wonderfully endless possibility of what might happen next.

The off-season for Blue Jays fans has been typically painful.  There’s a reason why “inside baseball” is a useful colloquialism for any industry in which peeking behind the scenes is an exercise in self-flagellation, and one might long for the younger days when you’d just show up at the stadium in April and cheer for whomever took the field.  The front office is never doing enough, the corporate owners are never spending enough, and any cobbled together twenty-five that doesn’t consist of the reigning champions in every single batting and pitching category is bound to be a disappointment.  And as always, the most bitter part of the off-season is the habitual departure of one or two of the favorites.  Watching David Price slap on a Boston cap last year wasn’t great, but he hadn’t been with us very long.  Seeing Edwin Encarnacion sheathe himself into a Chief Wahoo jersey was wound-salting agony.  Making it worse is that you can’t even really blame him for jumping the puddle to Cleveland.  Free agents earn the right to play wherever they want for however much they want, and Edwin worked his ass off to get there, even if there isn’t here.  But what does the subtraction of all those delectable parrot walks do to the team he left behind?

There’s been plenty of speculation of course, because that’s what we do in the absence of new box scores to dissect.  Sportswriters keen to claim the mantle of this year’s Nostradamus are ever eager to craft the season’s obituary before the first pitch is thrown.  The day the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, they were immediately anointed the 2017 AL East champions, even though the truth of baseball is that there are 162 games to get through, and numbers aren’t always the best measure of the randomness of reality.  That rotation does look fearsome, but you never know:  Price could continue his downward trend, Rick Porcello could have a natural regression from his Cy Young season, and Sale’s wonky delivery could finally blow out his arm.  The point, one supposes, is that you can feign expertise but simply can’t say with any certainty, and for a sport that is often in danger of getting BABIP’d and fWAR’d to death by a parade of increasingly perplexing statistics designed to shackle the future to a handy script, its enduring appeal lies in its essential unpredictability.  That slow, tantalizing burn where new event builds upon new event and the final outcome is light-years removed from what anyone imagined it might be at the commencement of play, is the beauty of the baseball game.

On the day before the first spring innings, every team has an equal chance to do what the Cubs did last year.  Guys outplay or underplay their expectations year after year; goats become heroes and then suddenly grow the horns back on a lightning turn:  you can be Mike Trout for a hundred and fifty-five games and then on one missed grounder you’re Bill Buckner (or Rougned Odor on the final play of Game 3 of the 2016 ALDS).  In Florida and Arizona right now, there are a thousand breakout stars waiting to ignite, and the same thousand ready to slip away unheralded into the darkness.  In Dunedin, where the Blue Jays are doing situps and wind sprints as we speak, Justin Smoak is hoping he can consistently be the guy who decided to tie and then walk off a 2016 game with two back-to-back home runs.  Melvin Upton Jr. is craving a leadoff spot and another 20 stolen bases/20 home run season.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia wants fans to learn how to pronounce his last name.  Kendrys Morales wants to make everyone in Toronto forget how to pronounce “Encarnacion.”  J.P. Howell wants to be Andrew Miller.  Marcus Stroman wants to be Cy Young with a record deal.  Joe Biagini wants to be Cy Young with a clown nose.  And Jose Bautista just wants to be Jose Bautista again, consistently, from April straight through to October, regardless of what the (suitably humbled, one would imagine) Texas Rangers think.

They may be none of those things.  They may be all of them.  We’ll spend the next eight months finding out alongside, leaping out of our seats with fists pumping the air in one moment and hurling beers against the wall (and hopefully not at Orioles outfielders) in the next.

About the only certainty is the inevitability of change.  This time last year, Drew Storen was a likely lock to be the closer, Gavin Floyd had a better than average shot to be the fifth man in the rotation, Chris Colabello was the set-in-stone starting first baseman, and the bullpen would be anchored by guys like Jesse Chavez, Arnold Leon and Franklin Morales.  And Bautista (allegedly) wanted a $150 million contract extension with no hometown discount or he was outta here.

Yeah.

The people who get paid a lot to know this stuff better than we layperson fans have done their best to put together a squad that can contend.  There are always questions of how long they will, as the core ages, contracts expire and the looming threat of a rebuild (i.e. sucking for five straight years or more with a roster of cheap nobodies) after a bad season nibbles away like a tick at the base of one’s skull.  They said they wanted to get younger, more athletic, and more left-handed, and really none of that happened.  Maybe that would have bettered their chances for this year, maybe it won’t make a difference.  Maybe those mathematical projections that have the Jays pegged at a middling 81-81 and missing the playoffs by a country mile are spot on.  Maybe they’re utterly bonkers.

Baseball has to write its own narrative anyway.

On paper, teams look however they are going to look at this point.  Once the game begins, paper’s only role is to wrap the hot dogs.

On the day before, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays are both the best and the worst team this franchise has ever fielded.  The cast is assembled, the jerseys are washed and pressed, the infield grass is trimmed, the chalk lines are precise, and the stage is set, awaiting only two little words.

Play.  Ball.

Elegy for the 2016 Season

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So… I guess we didn’t know the way out.  Or, we did, and we just couldn’t find it this time.

Baseball has no denouements.  For a sport often criticized for its length and occasionally languid pace, individual games and entire seasons can end in a slice of time scarcely more measurable than the duration of a blink:  the snap of a glove closing over a futile pop-up, a batted ball striking a plastic seat perched over the left-field fence.  A cord is cut, and abruptly it’s celebrations for one team and quiet exits through the clubhouse for the other.  There is no window in which to become comfortable with the notion of either, but plenty of time for deep contemplation to follow, once the lights have been dimmed and the crowds have gone home, and the weeks roll on into November and questions of trades and free agency and the long wait until spring training of a new year.

The lesson from the 2016 American League Championship Series is to be careful what you wish for.  As the Blue Jays were sweeping away the hated Texas Rangers, Cleveland was doing the same to the Boston Red Sox despite a pitching staff absent its two best starters, and every statistic in the book prescribed that the Jays would have a much better chance of beating Cleveland than going up against David Ortiz et al once more.  But Boston, like Toronto, was a team dependent on its offense, and Cleveland’s hurlers were stepping up and shutting that offense down.  Toronto had gone through a horrendous patch in September when they hadn’t been able to hit much of anything, and were making late callup opposition 4th & 5th starters they’d never faced before look like Cy Young and Sandy Koufax.  Perhaps we were fooling ourselves into the idea that those doldrums that had seemed to vanish in the week leading up to the playoffs couldn’t return.  The way our guys were demolishing Texas’ aces made a march to the World Series feel inevitable, the prospect of perhaps dueling the Cubs at Wrigley Field for the big trophy simply mouth-watering.  Surely, Cleveland’s compromised hurlers would be yet another easily crushed stepping stone.  Our guys even had better-than-average numbers against the fearsome reliever Andrew Miller from his days with the Yankees.

How wrong we were.

There have perhaps been few playoff teams as evenly matched as Cleveland and Toronto, and in the final analysis, Cleveland simply played better.  They deserve every congratulations for their victory – even if such kudos have to be offered through clenched teeth.

Perhaps because there are no denouements in baseball, it’s easy to become too focused on what we lost in that final disappointing game rather than what we shared in the 170 games that preceded it.  2016 gave us plenty of wonderful baseball memories to store away in the vault of highlight reels for fans to trade “where were you when” stories about.  The playoffs alone have given us Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off wild card 3-run home run, and Josh Donaldson’s ALDS Game 3 walk-off face-plant into the plate.  Those can be happily added to the hallowed echelons reserved for “Touch ’em all, Joe,” Dave Stieb’s no-hitter and the greatest bat flip of all time.  Ultimately no one will have much cause to rue the hopelessness of the ALCS, much as few reminisce about last year’s.  We’ll take our victories where we can find them, and contemplate how neither the Orioles, the Red Sox or any of the teams that did not even touch the postseason will have any such memories of 2016 going forward.  For these are the moments that keep you invested in a team, keep you holding on to the unlimited promise of the next season, and the season after that.

There is of course a degree of melancholy in the end of 2016 for the Toronto Blue Jays in that it represents the potential end of the road for two of its most iconic players, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion:  men who shuffled into town with sparse fanfare and lower expectations and developed, under the hopeful eyes of millions Canadian fans, into two of baseball’s elite.  Few want to see them go, as their departure would represent the closing of a door on a singular time in Toronto baseball.  The reality of the business aspect of the sport foretells that they probably will.  At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, one could make the case that they have had several years and chances to get it done, as it were, and have not.  Indeed, their respective offensive output was sorely lacking over these past five games when it mattered most, and hits from them alone in a key moment here and there might have changed the outcome completely.

Without meaning any disrespect to the two, maybe it is finally time to let someone else step up.

One recalls how important Dave Winfield was to the Blue Jays’ World Series win in 1992 and how his departure in the off-season would have seemed at the time to be fatal to the chances of a repeat, but the arrival and subsequent performance of Paul Molitor the following year rendered that conversation swiftly moot.  If the Jays’ front office doesn’t want to pony up to keep Joey Bats and the Ed-wing, who’s to say they might not find somebody better – a Paul Molitor for 2017?  We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility.  Recall the hew and cry when Toronto passed up its chance to retain the forbiddingly expensive David Price and signed a cheaper, under-the-radar J.A. Happ instead.  After Happ’s 20-win season and Price’s year of scuffling with Boston, no one regrets that decision.

Bautista and Encarnacion may leave, but the team they built together and the fans they inspired will still be here – jerseys and all.  For that, we’ll always be grateful.  Perhaps we’ll welcome them back again one day in honorary Blue Jays uniforms, to throw out the first pitch or flip the bat and walk the parrot in a 50th anniversary game in 2026 as their names rightfully join the Level of Excellence.  They’ve earned it, and no one can ever deprive them of the history they’ve made in Toronto.

In the first Golden Era of Toronto Baseball, the Blue Jays had to lose four sets of ALCS appearances (with a few non-playoff seasons in between) before they were finally able to advance and take it all.  As we bear witness to the Second Golden Era, we might want to reassure ourselves with the same thought.  There is no reason why we can’t find ourselves back here same time next year, the holes in the boat patched, two years’ worth of playoff experience under our belts, a better, ingrained approach against shutdown pitching.  After decades in the wilderness, the Toronto Blue Jays have regained the most important thing it is to be in this sport:  the status of a contender.  Contenders pack the stands night after night, fashion the most gripping of games and have the best players in the league salivating to come join the party.  That might be a more satisfying, long-term victory than the fleeting glitter of a 2016 World Series trophy, and in a sport without denouements, an ending that can linger for years to come.

Thank you to every one of the Toronto Blue Jays for a terrific season.  See you in the spring.

The Miracles of October

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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.

But.

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?)

You all know what happened next.

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.

Double play.

Right?

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.

Safe.

Ballgame.

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.

It’s the Other 54 Games that Matter: The Blue Jays’ Season So Far

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There’s a saying in baseball, I first heard it paraphrased on The West Wing but I’m sure it originates somewhere else:  Every team is going to win 54 games, every team is going to lose 54 games; it’s what you do with the other 54 games that matters.  162 games is a brutally long season, and completely botching 70 of those outings could still net a team a record decent enough to win a division.

As the Toronto Blue Jays sit in third place just having clawed their way back to a .500 won-lost percentage (15-15), while elsewhere about MLB the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Mariners and Nationals are off to explosive starts, both longtime fans and bandwagoners who marveled at the can-do-no-wrong 2015 Toronto squad have been left scratching their heads.  Last night’s 12-2 blowout against the Texas Rangers was a welcome dose of ointment for that itch, a hint of the promise this team still holds in its reserve tank.  And there are 132 games left to play.  39 more wins, 39 more losses, and a whole lot of possibilities in those remaining 54.

When I was eight years old and going to games at the Ex with my dad, I didn’t pay attention to off-season maneuvering – trades, free agent signings and so forth.  So long as those guys on the field were in blue and white, I and the rest of Toronto would be cheering for them.  The same cannot be said for the electron microscope that was placed on every rumor, both legitimate and cockamamie, surrounding the Blue Jays as a Kansas City glove closed on the last out of the 2015 World Series.  What kind of team would newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins assemble?  Would the notoriously tight-pursed Rogers Communications pony up enough loonies and toonies to get the band back together?  Did some of those guys even want to come back?

We found out the answer pretty quickly as the ramifications of outgoing GM Alex Anthopoulos’ decision to go all in on 2015 by purging the farm system crashed down like a bad hangover.

It was something of a poison chalice handed to Shapiro and Atkins, and while one can still legitimately question some of the choices they made, as fans, we were fortunate that as many of those same heroes of 2015 came back as they did.  Maybe for one last hurrah as it turns out, as the impending free agencies of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion loom in November, and plenty of teams with big bucks and hungry for big bats are salivating at the prospect of snapping one or both of them up.  (The thought of either in a Red Sox uniform in 2017 filling David Ortiz’s soon-to-be-hung-up cleats is enough to inspire cold sweats.)

We said goodbye to David Price, Mark Buehrle, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks, Dioner Navarro, Cliff Pennington and the lovable Munenori Kawasaki.  We welcomed back J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez.  We said hello to Drew Storen, Gavin Floyd, Joe Biagini, Franklin Morales, Pat Venditte and a whole slew of new and eager arms.  We finally saw a return on investment in Michael Saunders after he narrowly escaped a last-minute pre-season trade.  For the past couple of months this mix of veterans and newcomers has been struggling to jell as a team under the lights of the television cameras, the stares of thousands of fans and the weight of an entire country’s collected expectations.

So far, in 2016, we’ve seen our share of heartbreak.  The season’s first loss to Tampa Bay, when the Jays got smacked with a questionable application of the new “Chase Utley Rule,” reminded us again how vulnerable we are in close games and that Major League umpires in the clutch tend not to be on Toronto’s side.  (Recall that questionable umpiring handed Game 6 and the ALCS to Kansas City by awarding the Royals a home run on obvious fan interference, being too generous with the strike zone on poor Ben Revere and failing to call a blatant balk on Royals’ closer Wade Davis when the go-ahead runs were on base.)  We watched reliever Brett Cecil’s incredible scoreless pitching streak come to a spectacular dumpster fire of an ending as he, along with our carefully crafted bullpen, let lead after lead slip away.  And we shook our heads in stunned disbelief as we watched one of last season’s most beloved players, Chris Colabello, take an 80 game suspension when a banned substance was found in his urine.

April 2016 hasn’t just been a hangover from last year’s high; it’s been the full-on nauseous throes of heroin withdrawal.  Perhaps one consolation is that however the Blue Jays seem to be struggling, the hated New York Yankees are doing far worse:  9-17 out of the gate and poised for possibly their worst year in decades.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  As much as Toronto sportswriters like to fantasize, the Blue Jays were never going to go 162-0 and sweep all three playoff series.  Baseball remains a game of obsessive statistics, and as hot as those other teams are right now, slumps (or regressions) are inevitable.  It could be that the Blue Jays have just spent April purging their bad karma, and that May 5’s trouncing of the Rangers – karmically embarrassing Texas starter Derek Holland, who wiped himself with a Blue Jays rally towel during the ALDS last year – is the Jays settling back into where they’re supposed to be.  They’ve won three in a row now, and while this weekend’s inter-league matchup against the Dodgers won’t be a cakewalk (particularly with the strikeout-prone Jays facing MLB strikeout leader Clayton Kershaw on Saturday), it’s a chance to solidify the team’s direction and remind themselves, the fans and the world that they are no fluke, that they remain a force to be reckoned with and a serious contender to take it all in the fall, no matter how many people say the Chicago Cubs are due.

The alternative, what Blue Jays fans dread most, is more slips and stumbles, a fall out of playoff contention, and greedy front office suits champing at the bit to launch a Marlins-esque fire sale at the trade deadline in favor of cheaper, lesser players who will proceed to suck for the next ten years – what baseball executives charitably like to call “rebuilding.”

We endured 22 years of that, we don’t have the patience to go through it again.  The franchise itself might not survive it.

The Blue Jays have all the ingredients of a championship team.  The defense is borderline flawless.  If Troy Tulowitzki isn’t producing at the plate, he’s making up for it in the hits he’s denying opposing batters.  The starting pitching has been the highlight of the season so far, on balance arguably the strongest five-man rotation in baseball.  Happ in particular, who was exceptionally average in his first stint as a Blue Jay and whose off-season signing was greeted with resigned sighs given that it slammed the door on any lingering hopes of reacquiring David Price, has been simply exceptional, going 4-0 with one no-decision and proving to be that guy about whom you can relax and let out a long breath when you know he’s going to be on the mound that day.  Yes, with the exception of Roberto Osuna, the bullpen has been a source of many jangled nerves, shouldering the blame for nearly every single loss so far this year, but they seem to be settling down finally, with Chavez starting to rack up the K’s and Biagini throwing clean innings (and curveballs in his post-game interviews) and once Cecil and Drew Storen figure things out the whole crew should prove to be as lights-out as any bullpen in the majors.

The big difference between this year and last is the hitting, or lack thereof.  It’s almost as though the Blue Jays read too many of their own clippings and league-leading 2015 stats, and have been so focused on belting the ball out of the park that they’ve lost their timing and failed to recall that small ball can win games as well as home runs can.  Interestingly enough, of last night’s twelve runs scored, only three of them came from homers, and those three were the result of one three-run blast by Encarnacion in the bottom of the third.  Whatever magical combination of circumstances was working for the Blue Jays on May 5th, 2016, they need to etch it into their brains and hearts and continue to summon it as they face Kenta Maeda and the Dodgers this evening.  If the bullpen can’t save you, and the umpires are against you, just keep the line moving, keep padding the lead and make the games into no-doubters.

It’s still too early to say that the corner has been turned.  There are at least 39 losses yet to come, and some of those are going to be nail-biters, and teeth-gnashers, and set-your-jersey-on-fire heart-shredders.  That’s baseball for you.  Like any team sport, it demands faith.  Toronto fans have been tested by far worse before, and last night was a crumb of that fabled manna falling from the heavens into a well-worn leather glove.  Let’s hope that it portends bigger and greater things, and if it doesn’t right away, there’s lots of baseball left.  It’s the other 54 games that will make the difference.

Someone’s Gotta Win, Someone’s Gotta Lose

Ace and Bearemy

This is the indisputable truth whenever two teams step onto the field.  Hardly anyone ever just roots for a good clean game; you’re always hoping your guys make mincemeat of the others.  Before the first pitch flies, when the score is at zero, both squads have the exact same chance to walk off nine innings later with fists pumping the air.  And sometimes you have to swallow that sickening churn in your gut as you watch the other guys do it.  It’s regrettable that the effort and the drama of a 162-game season has to come down to a single pitch, a single swing of the bat, but that is the magic of baseball.  That was how it was in 1993 when Joe Carter won the World Series with his three-run blast to left field.  That’s how it was, with a far more bitter taste, in the heartbreaking ALCS Game 6.

So the incredible saga of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays ends with Josh Donaldson grounding out to the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Moustakas, with Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar stranded at third and second, the Royals victors by a single run achieved by what was admittedly a terrific piece of baserunning by Lorenzo Cain in the bottom of the eighth.  While it would have been wonderful to watch our guys pull ahead and force a Game 7, it wasn’t to be.  The Royals will now take on the New York Mets for the World Series crown.  And you can’t begrudge the Royals for it, either; the ALCS came down to two formidable, equally-matched teams, and while from a statistical perspective you could make a legitimate argument that the Blue Jays were a better team, the Royals simply outplayed them.  They pushed harder, made better use of their scoring opportunities, silenced the Jays’ bats with their world-class bullpen.  The Jays went 0 and 12 with runners in scoring position in Game 6, so you can’t suggest they didn’t have plenty of opportunities to break out a big lead; they just weren’t able to come through.  And that’s not their fault either – sometimes, stats and history can be on your side and yet, plain dumb luck isn’t.  There were a few questionable calls in the game that Jays fans will be wringing their hands over all winter; the waaaay outside second strike called on Ben Revere in the ninth that had him smashing a trash can in the dugout after he whiffed on the next pitch, and a certain bearded young Royals enthusiast who picked what could have been only a double off the outfield wall with his glove and gave the aforementioned Moustakas a dubious home run in the second (I wouldn’t suggest that fan try visiting north of the border any time soon).  Chalk it up to those fickle gods of baseball again; just as often a bad call can break in your favor.  But it is what it is.

As always following a season-ending loss, the temptation to point fingers will be strong.  But just as a man should be remembered for the sum of his life’s achievements and not just how things go on his last day, so too should fans set aside bruised feelings and remember the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays by the sum of the amazing moments they gifted us with throughout a remarkable season, and the goodwill and unity they brought to a city and a country that needed it badly.  For me, there are a few distinct images that will stand out for years to come:

  • The 11-game winning streak following the July trade deadline, when it seemed like the Jays were invincible.
  • The surprise of the mid-summer acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price.
  • Tulo’s first game as a Blue Jay, including his first home run.
  • Every catch made by Kevin Pillar.
  • Sweeping the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
  • The sage, unflappable cool of old pros R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.
  • The mighty Edwing.
  • Ryan Goins’ come-from-behind two-run walk-off home run.
  • Justin Smoak’s first career grand slam.
  • Roberto Osuna’s silent moments of prayer before shutting down opposition bats.
  • The unhittable Brett Cecil.
  • Play-by-play man Buck Martinez calling out “Get up, ball!”
  • Russell Martin’s cannon of an arm throwing out base stealers at second.
  • Munenori Kawasaki’s delightfully weird postgame interviews.
  • The inspiring return of the fiery Marcus Stroman from a potentially season-ruining injury, and his motto that “height doesn’t measure heart.”
  • LaTroy Hawkins’ last pitch to clinch the AL East.
  • The unfurling of the “2015 AL East Champions” banner at the Rogers Centre.
  • Marco Estrada’s flawless pitching in Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 5 of the ALCS.
  • Tulowitzki’s season-saving 3-run home run.
  • Accidental pitcher Cliff Pennington’s fastball strike in the horrendous ALCS Game 4.
  • Chants of “MVP” whenever Josh Donaldson stepped to the plate.
  • And of course, no list of such things could be complete without Jose Bautista’s bat flip to end all bat flips.

We’ll remember the disappointment, too, the swings and misses and the lost promise of a World Series crown that will have to wait until October of next year.  But if nothing else, 2015 will be remembered as the year that the Blue Jays shut the door on 22 years of mediocrity and transformed into genuine, fearsome contenders, unable to be dismissed any longer as that average Canadian team that used to be great.  Specific feats cannot be denied:  they won the brutal American League East division and came back from the brink against a tough Texas team to claim the ALDS.  But we saw it too in the way those 25 roster members embraced each other, young and old, newcomers and veterans, and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of a singular goal, collected egos set aside.  R.A. Dickey said that “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”  For a team with only three native-born sons, the attitude was somehow uniquely Canadian of them.

And Canadians responded.  As their oft-trending hashtag urged, we came together.  The Blue Jays became Canada’s team.  We unleashed a pent-up emotion that was searching all these years for a floodgate through which it could burst.  We finally forgave the hurt that festered from the 1994 strike, we forgot about hockey and filled the stands again to share in the glory and the occasional agony.  There will be kids in tiny Toronto jerseys who will grow up remembering the 2015 Blue Jays as “their” team, and comparing every year that follows to this – just like those of us who came of age with 1992 and 1993.  While the roster will change next year as new faces arrive and old favorites move on, there will always be something particularly special about this iteration of the team, and we’ll look back at them with a reverence that they truly deserve.  In the end the World Series or lack thereof doesn’t really matter.  The Blue Jays have already won victories that can never be taken away.  This was the team that made me a fan again, that made many people across this country fans, either again or for the first time, and as far as I’m concerned, things can only get better from here.  The boys in blue are back.

Thank you so much, 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.  See you in the spring.