The climax of the film Moneyball (spoilers!) hinges on a single moment in a single game. The Oakland A’s are looking to win their 20th straight and have, against odds, blown an 11-0 lead in the late innings. Scott Hatteberg (played by Chris Pratt), a slumping catcher-turned-first baseman upon whom general manager Billy Beane has been piling his hopes for proving his sabermetric approach to baseball – and who has been benched over and over by disbelieving manager Art Howe – steps to the plate. As if suddenly cast into a remake of The Natural, the unassuming Hatteberg swings hard and blasts a triumphant walk-off home run. Baseball is full of these cinematic moments, and we saw another one last night.
Texas fans had to have been feeling pretty confident as they strolled into the familiar confines of Arlington after taking two straight from the AL East-winning Blue Jays at Toronto’s Rogers Centre (I still want to call it SkyDome), games in which Toronto’s league-leading offense fizzled in opportunity after opportunity. Likewise, Toronto fans were simmering a bit in their dejection after such an otherwise inspiring season. To see it end after all that in three straight, barely out of the postseason starting gate, would have been an odious fate worthy of the perennially terrible Maple Leafs. But as the game wound its way into the middle innings, we started to see reminders of why obituaries and thoughts of sweeps were terribly premature.
Marco Estrada, a pitcher who began the season in the bullpen and who had gone somewhat unheralded given the headline-grabbing flash of the duo of David Price and Marcus Stroman, threw a nearly flawless sextet of innings. The Rangers simply could not hit him or take advantage of the few times they were able to get guys on base. If Game 1 was undone by a weaker-than-usual Price outing, and Game 2 ultimately undermined by a late failure by an exhausted bullpen, Estrada’s crystalline throws had to have delivered some inspiration to the bats, letting them work the small ball for a pair of runs instead of needing those massive – and risky – wild swings that can pay off with moonshots but more often than not lead to inning-ending strikeouts. Buoyed by Estrada, the Jays notched a cheap 2, then found themselves in the sixth with the bases loaded, nobody out, and Texas starter Martin Perez – who had done the Jays the immense courtesy of walking in a run – heading for the benches. Reliever Chi Chi Gonzalez got Chris Colabello to ground into a head-desking double play, the fourth time the Jays had done that in the night, and it looked as though another golden opportunity was about to be blown.
Then Troy Tulowitzki stepped into the batter’s box.
You can argue about your favorite players, and scream “MVP” every time Josh Donaldson runs out onto the field, but Tulo is for me the embodiment the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays – talented, driven, and oftentimes as frustrating as not, but ever possessed of the innate capacity to deliver down to the last strike of the last out. Arriving halfway through the season and cast immediately into the role of leadoff man, Tulowitzki impressed with a home run in his very first game as a Jay, and with the rockets tossed across the field to retire sprinting batters at first. But his bat abruptly cooled off, and the camera shot of him shuffling back to the dugout after whiffing on a third strike had become a familiar sight. Manager John Gibbons eventually dropped Tulo to the middle of the order, giving the speedy Ben Revere a chance to shine as the leadoff man, but the bat still wasn’t connecting. And then came that horrible moment in early September where a collision with Kevin Pillar cracked Tulo’s shoulder blade and put him out of commission until the very last games of the season. Was this to be a harbinger of the Jays’ fates? As Toronto clinched the division and then sputtered out with a couple of embarrassing losses, the stench of heartbreak years like 1985, 1989 and 1991 came wafting back. Toronto’s middling performances in Games 1 and 2 reminded us of the old hated “Blow Jays” epithet. Tulo, likewise, though he had worked hard in rehab to make it back into the lineup and was playing through pain, was back to a thus-far unremarkable season as a Blue Jay.
With two on and two out, Tulowitzki worked the count, and as the insipid FS1 color commentators lauded the Texas defense and pitching strategy (Harold Reynolds annoyed an entire nation with his snide comment about how Canadians can’t catch), it seemed like the late Yogi Berra’s deja vu all over again. A game earlier, Texas had walked Edwin Encarnacion on purpose because they figured Tulo would be an easier out – which then, he had been. As the count rose to the pivotal 3-2, here came Gonzalez with a changeup. Over the plate.
It wasn’t one of those hits where you know, right at the crack of the bat, that this one is going to end up in the parking lot. But there it went. Faster. Further. Rangers outfielders looked up. Watched it go. Higher. Deeper.
All across Canada, living rooms exploded. The Jays fans who had made the trek to Arlington did their best to fill a suddenly quiet stadium with roars.
And Troy Tulowitzki, the happiest man in the ballpark, rounded the bases, touched home plate, and high-fived his teammates, perhaps in his professional athlete’s mind not realizing the significance of that precise moment. With that one clutch blast, he had saved the Blue Jays’ postseason.
Baseball never lets you dismiss the underestimated.
Texas managed to put up one run on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the 6th, but suddenly inspired relievers Aaron Loup, Mark Lowe, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna did their jobs with efficiency and aplomb and shut down the remainder of the Rangers’ lineup. And with that, on a 5-1 triumph, the Jays were still in it. Game 4 sees knuckleballer R.A. Dickey becoming the oldest player to make his postseason debut, looking to even up the series and bring it back to Toronto for what one hopes will be the comeback victory of the decade, and on to the ALCS, even greater things and even greater moments.
For today though, Troy Tulowitzki has proven why he’s worthy to wear that blue uniform and stand on the field with those other guys every single night. He came through. delivered when it mattered. He gave the game its Hatteberg-in-Moneyball scene.
A nation still has its hopes today.
Let’s go Blue Jays.