Tag Archives: Roberto Osuna

Not Fade Away

I wasn’t there at the beginning.  He crept unheralded onto the roster during my long night away from baseball and the team my father had taught me to love.  I wasn’t there as he transformed himself from a perennial journeyman castoff and marginal bench bat into one of the most powerful, most feared, and most significant hitters in the entire sport.  I – along with many others, judging by the endless rows of empty seats in the old highlight reels that have been making the rounds of the Interwebs in the last few days – wasn’t there, for the most part, to watch him become Jose Bautista.

But I, along with 47,393 others, and probably a great number more who wished they could have been, was there for the end.

As I noted last time, this was a crummy year for the Blue Jays, the metaphorical bill coming due for two most remarkable, franchise-reinvigorating seasons full of individual moments to spark debate and storied recollection for years to come.  It’s never easy to cope with the head-pounding hangover that follows, or to settle into the realization that maybe this ball club hasn’t quite made it over that maddeningly elusive hump that separates perennial contenders from perpetual also-rans.  Maybe, like the Minnesota Twins, we’ll have one bad year and be right back in it the next.  Whatever happens in 2018, it’s hard to nestle into the idea that No. 19 won’t somehow be part of it.  He has ingrained himself into the soul of this team, that bearded visage almost as eponymous for the Toronto Blue Jays as the bird in profile stitched into every uniform.

Somehow, it was easier to get over Edwin Encarnacion leaving.  We went through the five stages of grief pretty fast, soothed somewhat by how well Justin Smoak performed in his place at first base.  I was away from the game during Roy Halladay’s tenure, so he never meant as much to me as some of the guys in the 80’s I grew up watching, but maybe it was just as hard when he departed for Philadelphia.  At least you knew Doc would land on his feet, and indeed, he made some of his biggest contributions only once he was sporting a P on his cap.

We don’ t know what the future holds for Jose Bautista.  As he looks at 37, his fielding a shadow of what it was and the pop largely quieted from the singular bat, the thought of him reduced to a minor-league let’s-give-it-a-try deal to DH with a sub-par franchise somewhere else is heartbreaking.

That’s not how a legend is supposed to go out.

Blue Jays Nation’s Andrew Stoeten wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago about how baseball seems to have piled itself collectively onto Jose Bautista and how despite the load, he’s never broken.  I’ve never quite understood why the mythos of Bautista-as-villain has been perpetuated, and the only “rationale” I can find is that maybe folks just don’t like being on the receiving end of one of his home runs.  You’ve heard the boos that rain down on him in every opposition ballpark (except maybe Seattle, simply because it’s flooded with Jays fans) and the snipes from jackass GM’s who whine that they wouldn’t want to sign him because their fans don’t like him.  You’ve seen the douchewad managers who order their pitchers to throw at him, or the childish players who dispense with words and just out-and-out take swings at him.  That’s what you get, it seems, for being exceptionally good and injecting, God forbid, some actual panache into how you play a “stately” sport that can at times bore people to tears with its mountains of algorithms and acronyms and robotic players possessing nary a discernible trace of personality.

Jose Bautista has always been larger than life.  I’d rather have – and the dirty secret is, most fans would rather have as well – a once-a-generation shining light than a legion of statistically competent monks shuffling in and out of the clubhouse.  You know, the types who play well enough, but no one ever wants to buy their jersey, or would ever sing their name out along with 40,000 friends after an instant of triumph.  Cleveland has a bunch of dudes like that, they won 102 games this year, are likely headed back to the World Series, and day in and out in the regular season they can’t fill their stands.  No one cares.  Because none of those guys has a flicker of what Bautista simply owns.

Jose Bautista is the kind of guy you’d want to make a movie about.

It’s fitting, then, that his last game in Toronto as a member of the home team had its own cinematic quality, and I’m lucky I got to witness it from five rows above home plate – just behind where Geddy Lee usually sits and keeps score.  I bought a program, but didn’t bother with a pencil.  I didn’t want my head buried in scribe’s work today lest I miss something special on the field.

The roof stayed closed until after 12:30, to hold off this atypical late September heat.  Improvised banners dangled or were hoisted everywhere, saying goodbye, saying thank you, or making obvious predictions about a future anointing to the Level of Excellence.  When a crack of sunlight crossed center and the panels began to slide back to the sound of the hip-hop pumped in by the stadium’s resident DJ, it was like the gradual unveiling of a Broadway curtain on the closing night of a show.  Of course, you weren’t exactly sure how the show was going to go down.  There was nothing riding on this game, the second Wild Card berth long having slipped out of reach.  Maybe it mattered more to the opposition Yankees trying to catch the Red Sox and avoid the dreaded do-or-die one game playoff.  It didn’t matter much to the talkative Yankee fan named Jonathan sitting next to me, who was in town on business and decided to grab a single ticket to hopefully see Aaron Judge sock some dingers.

It mattered to the rest of us, though.  We wanted to see an acknowledgement of our hero.  Baseball was dead in this town – pushing up the daisies, running down the curtain and joining the choir invisible dead – and he had cast his eye upon the empty blue seats and said no, I’m bringing it back.  Maybe moreso than anyone else, he had brought it back.

Most of all this day, we didn’t want to see him fail.

The first actor took the stage.  Marcus Stroman emerged for his warmups wearing an old-style black Bautista jersey, and we cheered.  We knew then that they were going to get it right, that everyone down on the field knew the significance of this game as much as we did in the stands.  The players let Bautista run out onto the field alone, his stride strong and determined, and we rose to our feet, careful not to waste a single of these last opportunities to let him know, here in the friendliest of confines where he’d never hear so much as a titter of disapproval directed at him, exactly how we all felt.

Heroes are few and far between in this day and age, when we are inundated hourly with relentless updates on the worst of us elevated to the maximum level of their incompetence and making the world suffer for their inadequacies (my new favorite word is kakistocracy – look it up).  It still seems silly, though, to assign the concept of heroism to men who get paid more in a year than we’ll earn in our lives to play a game for six (and if all goes well, seven) months.  Yet if you reflect on our intrinsic need for heroes, and the ability of athletes to unite thousands in a single, blazing moment of ecstatic, unifying glory – like what happens when a fastball down the middle connects with the barrel of a bat, and time and sound halt for a microsecond before the telltale crack – and a veritable supernova of unleashed excitement follows – how can you not come to think of the men who generate these moments in those terms?  Chances are you’d probably hate the guts of a majority of the other people in the stands with you if you knew them personally – what quality do you ascribe to someone who can compel you to set all of that aside and come together en masse with one purpose, one intensely shared passion; an instant when you know that everyone around you feels exactly the same way?

Bautista must have sensed it, and he fed off it.  Instead of looking like the flailing strikeout magnet he’d been for the majority of the season, there in the haze of an aroma of sunblock and french fries and humidity fogging the camera lenses we were all trying to use to capture these important final hours, he stepped into the box with the hot winds at his back.  He turned on the first pitch he saw and deposited it in front of Aaron Judge for a solid single.  The next time up, Yankees starter Jaime Garcia avoided giving him anything to hit, and he strolled to first on a walk, to be cashed in later by Russell Martin’s bases-clearing double.

When Bautista came to the plate with the bases loaded later in that game, the stir that had been building in the park began to crest; things had been going well so far, the Jays were out to a comfortable lead and Judge hadn’t done anything yet.  It was a growing recognition that maybe the gods of baseball were crafting the narrative to a conclusion drawn from The Natural.  The right man at the right time in the right place, one last time.  And just like we all did when the count went to 1-1 in ALDS Game Five, we took to our feet, drew a breath and shared one collective thought, 47,394 strong.

Please, don’t let him fail.

The pitch came.

The leg kicked, the barrel turned, and–

Off it went.  Not to the seats, but safely into right field again.  Another single.

A runner crossed the plate.  Notch another in the RBI column.  And doff your cap to the man standing at first, mission accomplished for this inning.

It wasn’t legendary.  It wasn’t really even spectacular.

But it was enough.

I recall wondering if maybe, when he came to the plate for what would likely be his final at bat in the game, if Dellin Betances, on the mound for the Yankees at the time, might just toss him a “Sam Dyson Special” to give Bautista one last chance to do what he had done almost without parallel for ten years.  (Don’t tell me pitchers last year weren’t going easy on David Ortiz from time to time.)  But the Bronx Bombers still had their eye on the division title, they’d Judged their way back into the scoring in this one – much to the delight of young Jonathan to my left – and they weren’t inclined to give anything away.  So Jose Bautista’s final plate appearance in Toronto would be a forgettable pop out into foul territory.

However, it was probably one of the only times in baseball anyone has received a standing ovation for doing that.

The best had truly been saved for last, though, and when manager John Gibbons lifted the man of hour for Ezequiel Carrera with one out in the ninth inning, a 9-5 lead safely in hand, the warrior returned from the field with his shield intact.  When he paused to hug each of the teammates he encountered on the way back, the tears started to well.  Yes, contrary to what Tom Hanks would have you believe, sometimes, there is crying in baseball – tears that are earned, and shared, and cherished.

With all of our remaining energies, with our palms pounding furiously against one another and shaking the very walls with our raised voices, we saluted him.

He waved back.

Ted Williams, famously, didn’t.  Jose Bautista did.

Some gods do answer letters, Mr. Updike.

Roberto Osuna sent the Yankees packing, he and Martin did their end-of-game knock-knock-and-dab, but eyes diverted immediately to just outside the dugout, where Bautista was speaking with Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae.  I didn’t learn what he said, nor the emotions that he chose to reveal, until much later at home; instead I snapped the photo above and remained in my seat, watching the field clear and the crowds file out and listening to a deep silence descend, knowing that it wouldn’t lift until the end of next March and that an important, needed piece of that picture wouldn’t be there on that day.  That the crowd would be full of fans wearing jerseys bearing a name and number now extinct and relegated to the past.

It’s appropriate that regardless of weather, the roof at the Dome is closed soon after the game concludes; it’s the curtain being brought down on the show.  We yielded finally to the inevitable and began the trudge back to the car, satisfied in the victory, satisfied that our hero had done well this day, speculating on the ever-churning well of what-ifs that might mean this wasn’t really the end.  If it had to be, then it was fine.  Perhaps not the ending doused in the champagne bubbles of a World Series after party, but an ending of dignity, of respect, and of gratitude.  The quiet, European cinematic ending.

The Toronto Blue Jays will win another World Series soon enough, and while he won’t be in the lineup that physically accomplishes the ultimate goal, Jose Bautista will have been an integral part of painting the way.  Against odds, against expectations, and against an ocean of doubt and the clucking of baseball’s mother hens, he made himself, through sheer force of character and will, into a legend in these here parts.  Bautista’s work made the team a contender again, made great players want to play here, and made disillusioned fans pour back in through the gates in ever-swelling torrents, even in a losing season.  Those who come afterwards will be fated to be compared to him and what he achieved.

This day, September 24, 2017, he did not fail.  Over ten years, he never truly did.  He went out and played and got the crap kicked out of him and kept showing up and kept trying, and he was rewarded and he was reviled and he kept going, with all the grit and mettle you come to expect from the finest people to ever pick up a bat and a glove.  He has nothing left to prove to the people of Toronto, nothing more owing on that contract with the fans.  It is left to us, then, to ensure that the memory of what he did for us remains strong, as the feats of Dave Stieb and Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and others still do these many years later.  That these unifying little slices of time, the where-were-you-whens, will go on and never fade away.

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“I Thought It Would Be Easier”

Quickly, who said that:  President Puffy Cheeto-Face or the collective of the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans reflecting on April 2017?  After what has been the ugliest slog of baseball in the franchise’s recent memory, with heartbreak served up seemingly inning by inning for four weeks straight, the most reassuring thing to note is that we exit the cruelest month now with only the second worst record in MLB.  That dubious honor belongs to the once-nigh-unstoppable Kansas City Royals, who steamrolled us in the 2015 ALCS on their way to an eventual World Series crown and who are likewise wondering how it all cratered so bloody fast.  Such is the way of the game where your fortunes can turn on a single pitch.

However.

Fortunes certainly turned this past weekend, where after a spectacular relief pitching implosion turned an all-but-certain Friday night victory into a curb-stomping loss at the hands of the eternally frustrating Tampa Bay Rays, both the bats and the bullpen decided they’d had quite enough of that for one month, thank you very much, and delivered two immensely satisfying wins in a row.  Yes, you read that right – wins.  Much craved for green shoots in a field that looked to be lifeless, even salted at times.  Toronto Blue Jays baseball as you want to see it:  shutdown pitching, ace defense and timely extra-base hits, with heroism at every berth in that lineup.  The course of this season has taught us to temper our optimism, to stare the upcoming schedule in the face (and in particular, three games against the ever-entitled yet undeniably good Yankees) with a good dose of trepidation, but damn, we simply need to believe that we’re done appeasing the baseball gods with bad karma for one year and this, to borrow last year’s official hashtag, is where our moment truly begins.

I had the good fortune to attend Saturday’s game, and sitting there beneath the sealed roof that always casts a faint air of factory warehouse across the lively green and brown of the playing field, you could sense the resurgence of a vibe from years past – the dreaded scent of lowered expectations.  Despite the best efforts of Ace and the lovely J Force girls to draw forth the exuberance that has become this stadium’s signature these past seasons, this was a crowd not quite ready to open its heart lest it be splintered again by a late-inning Rays rally.  Wariness ruled at first, and when the Rays snuffed out an early Jays lead by successfully appealing an out call at the plate and trainers emerged from the dugout to attend to Russell Martin’s neck, the predominant sentiment rippling through the seats was “here we go again.”  Christ, what the hell else can go wrong?  As the score lingered at a stagnant 1-1, a group of fans over in the 500’s by right field attempted to start The Wave, and it dribbled over a mere two sections before fizzling out.  Not now, we all said.  Not in the mood.  Toss me another $13 Stella to dull the pain.

Though flames can dwindle, they seldom go out.  When the Jays rallied to take the lead, forty-two thousand seats creaked with bodies leaning forward again, stirred from their disinterest, with a few unfamiliar drops of hope trickling between the rivers of overpriced beer.  When the under-loved Justin Smoak connected lumber to horsehide and planted it in the center field seats, the roof itself bulged at the explosive uncorking of long-suppressed, highly carbonated joy.  We were suddenly all in it together again, and now The Wave could surf across the entire stadium for multiple turns, giving our guys the boost they needed to snip the Rays’ tails and send them shuffling back to the dugout – despite a tenser-than-usual ninth as three straight Rays batters sent Roberto Osuna fastballs to right field, only to have them land safely in Blue Jay gloves.  No miraculous comeback for the other side today, no need to load up the bats for yet another bottom of the ninth.  This one was ours, and as relatively meaningless as wins in April tend to be, we would happily take it.

Now that April is done, we’ve perhaps exhausted the excuse – paraded often these last weeks by Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner – that it’s early.  Likewise is it early after a mere two straight wins to begin projecting a trend, especially looking ahead at three games against the red-hot Yankees in their hood, followed by a return to the horrendous Tropicana Field and what will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable reunion with Edwin Encarnacion and his first-place Clevelanders.  But I will choose to take these last two games and the return of the namesake blue jay birds to my backyard feeders along with the green shoots of spring as the start of things getting better, of that point in the story of 2017 where we begin to astonish everyone who’s already written us off and grind our way back into the race.  Because frankly, we’ve absorbed far more than our share of bad baseball mojo this year.  At times, it feels like we’ve shouldered the burden for the entire league.  It’s time for some of that hideous stuff to rub off on the other guys, to the benefit of our “W” column.  Time for us to reap the bounty of late-inning rallies against flailing relievers and mighty opposition offenses rendered suddenly, inexplicably inert.  Time for us to make April merely the shadowed contrast by which May stands up and shines.

We are so due, folks.

We’ve Been Down Here Before, and We Know the Way Out

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If one was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays imagining the course of the 2016 American League Championship Series, the most ideal situation would not necessarily be rolling into Game 3 down two and needing to win four of the next five to move on to the big finale.  The Cleveland Indians are sitting far more comfortably after their first two victories and five straight so far in their 2016 postseason.  They can afford to absolutely tank the next few games confident that even in the Blue Jays’ most optimal outcome, this series will be decided on Cleveland’s home turf of Progressive Field by the end of this week, with a legion of red-clad fans on their feet for every strike hurled against an opposing batter.

No, not really what you want to see as a Toronto player or a fan, especially given the doses of playoff magic we’ve been treated to thus far:  Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the wild card, Josh Donaldson’s faceplant walk-off slide into home in the ALDS.  We want more of that to keep us sustained over the long winter to come.  It’s crunch time now, backs against the wall, the importance of every at bat magnified by expectant eyes and television cameras.  And yet, there is perhaps no team with as much potential to reverse this perilous course and claw its way back to a triumphant finale.  Because this isn’t last year, when you had an essentially virgin playoff roster flailing to find its way against the more experienced and more clutch Kansas City Royals.  And the losses to Cleveland thus far have contained more than a few silver linings to keep the faith going (as indeed, I had to be reminded of by my better half through more than a few grimaces and obscenities as I watched Game 2 slip away).

The consensus among sportswriters was that these were going to be low-scoring games as the pitching on both sides is elite.  No argument there.  But for one bad pitch each from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, these two games have entirely different outcomes.  Bummer if you’re a Jays fan looking for a crucial win, obviously, but reassuring to know that we won’t likely be treated to a reprise of last year’s horrifying Game 4, when Toronto’s pitchers might as well have been tossing underhand tennis balls to Kansas City.  Lost perhaps in the talk of the Blue Jays’ inability to scratch out hits with men in scoring position or indeed do anything but whiff against Cleveland’s Andrew Miller is the fact that those two errant home run balls have represented the sum total of Cleveland’s ability to score over these past two games.  Estrada and Happ were largely lights out except for those couple of forgivable mistakes (which would have been meaningless had their offense supported them in the manner to which they became accustomed in the ALDS).

We didn’t need to use our bullpen in Game 1, but in Game 2, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna combined to silence Cleveland’s lineup over three innings as effectively as Miller, even if they weren’t doing it in as flashy a manner – a zero on the scoreboard is a zero, whether it’s by strikeouts or groundouts.  And because Estrada was so solid in Game 1, those are the only two of our relievers that Cleveland has had to face.  Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are all rested and ready to go when needed, and Cleveland doesn’t have much experience facing any of them.  It is true that Osuna had begun to struggle a bit in the closing days of September, but when you recall that it was against AL East teams who’d seen him umpteen times throughout the season, it’s not surprising at all – and he’s been able to recoup his mojo quite handily in October against guys who haven’t had to face him in months.

On the Cleveland bullpen side, manager Terry Francona has relied exclusively on Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have combined to render the Blue Jays’ bats impotent.  The danger with this approach is that the more times the Jays face Miller, the better they’ll be able to read what’s coming – and because Miller has thrown multiple innings each outing, everyone down the lineup has had a chance to see him.  As good as Miller is, he’s not immortal, and he’s going to make a mistake at some point – or worse, become predictable.  One of the most satisfying moments of last season’s drive was watching Dioner Navarro rip an “unhittable” Miller pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats, and something similar is inevitable during the course of this long series (the hand-wringing likely to result for Francona, along the lines of Buck Showalter’s criticism for not using Zach Britton in the wild card game, is amusing to contemplate).

I and a few others wondered if the long layoff between the sweep of Texas in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS might lead to the Blue Jays losing the crucial edge that had served them so handily starting with the final two games of the regular season at Fenway.  When hitting is so much a matter of precision timing, any disruption in routine can trend it south, and while the Jays certainly used their well-earned downtime to continue training and practicing, lazy drills in an empty stadium simply don’t have the electricity needed to keep that edge sharp.  Sinking into a must-win situation, however, does, and with Marcus Stroman coming to the mound tonight as he did for the wild card game, the ingredients have been assembled for a repeat breakout that will both knock Cleveland back on its heels and put our guys smack back in it.

It’s been the story of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season.  They may look lost from time to time, but they’re never finished.  To paraphrase Leo McGarry, we’ve been down here before, and we know the way out.  It was punctuated, you may recall, by a particularly notorious flip of the bat.

That’s the hope, anyhow, as the playoffs are not notorious for providing a wealth of second chances, and a loss tonight could result in a lot of early obituaries for Toronto’s season.  But it’s not as though the Blue Jays are being pounded into the dirt by a far superior team with no hope of recovery.  The narrative has been simply that of one evenly matched team edging out the other by the narrowest of margins.  That trend isn’t sustainable, and even though Cleveland’s offense is probably due to break out, one can’t see that happening under the blazing lights and deafening roars of the Rogers Centre.  The odds have most definitely turned in our favor.

Former Jays utility player Munenori Kawasaki had a delightful quote last year about how his team would make its run:  “Don’t thinking! Don’t don’t thinking. Just swing! Just catc…uh throw! Just catch. Don’t think everybody. Just win!”  I can’t think of any better advice to my team than that.

Just win.  You know how.

You’ve done it before.

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.