From Baltimore to Texas. Disliked division opponent to bitter rival.
The Toronto Blue Jays kicked the visiting Orioles, their American League East nemesis, to the curb Tuesday night with a 5-2 victory in the AL wild-card game on Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run home run in the bottom of the 11th inning at a sold-out Rogers Centre.
Now, a confident Blue Jays outfit rides a three-game win streak into Arlington, Texas, where they will turn their attention to a best-of-five AL Division series versus the Rangers for a second consecutive year. The series starts today at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Last October, Toronto overcame a 2-0 series deficit to prevail in a deciding Game 5 not short on excitement, extra-curricular activity and bad blood, which carried into the just-completed regular season.
While the Jays have had long-standing rivalries with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, there has been no love lost between Toronto and Texas in the past calendar year.
The bat flip
The Jays’ Marcus Stroman and Rangers’ Cole Hamels were going pitch for pitch with each other last Oct. 14 in a Game 5 devoid of controversy until the top of the seventh inning. With the game tied 2-2, Rougned Odor on third base and Shin-Soo Choo at the plate, Toronto catcher Russell Martin’s return throw to relief pitcher Aaron Sanchez hit Choo’s bat in the batter’s box and flew away.
Odor raced home while Jays players reacted in disbelief after plate umpire Dale Scott called time and then awarded Odor the base. There was more talk and a review — the ruling was the play stood — as beer cans and other garbage landed on the field, with some objects becoming dangerous projectiles in the seats.
The lead for the Rangers was short-lived as Blue Jays right-fielder Jose Bautista clubbed a game-winning, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to snap a 3-3 tie and delivered a flamboyant bat flip for the ages toward the Rangers dugout that in Toronto is celebrated as one of the most iconic moments in the city’s sports history.
As Bautista sent a riled-up sellout crowd of 49,742 into a frenzy, he stared at Rangers reliever Sam Dyson while in a “take that” pose before the infamous bat flip and trotted around the bases.
“He needs to respect the game a little more,” Dyson later told reporters in reference to Bautista’s bat flip. “He’s doing stuff that kids do in backyard baseball and it shouldn’t be done.”
Added Bautista: “I didn’t plan anything like that.… I just enjoyed the moment, rounded the bases and got to the dugout.”
The bat flip angered the Rangers and sparked the first of two dugout-clearing melees in the inning. The other came at the end of the four-run outburst, with Dyson again in the middle of the action. After Troy Tulowitzki popped out to catcher Chris Gimenez in foul territory to finish the inning, Dyson tapped the shortstop on the butt just outside the batter’s box and Tulowitzki had some choice words.
That set the stage for the 2016 season series, which began in early May without incident as the hometown Blue Jays took three of four games.
Had the Rangers moved on and let bygones be bygones?
That appeared to be the case, until all hell broke loose after Bautista stepped to the plate to lead off the eighth inning in the series finale, won 7-6 by Texas. Reliever Matt Bush, who wasn’t on the Rangers’ roster last season, drilled the Toronto outfielder with a pitch.
Two batters later, Justin Smoak hit a ground ball to the left side of the infield. With second baseman Odor trying to turn a double play, Bautista slid hard into the bag and into Odor. The two players shoved each other and appeared ready to jaw when Odor threw a right hook — some would say a sucker-punch — that caught the six-foot, 205-pound Bautista flush in the jaw and sent him stumbling and his glasses and helmet flying. Both dugouts emptied.
“I was pretty surprised,” said Bautista of the punch by the five-foot-11, 195-pound Odor. “It takes a little bit bigger man to knock me down.” Bautista, who was suspended one game, added he went hard into second base, a slide he suggested was within the boundaries of the code.
Odor, who was barred eight games for his actions and fined $5,000 US — a suspension that was later reduced to seven — said it was a hard slide and he needed to protect himself, but didn’t regret what happened. “It’s part of the game.”
Three players and two coaches were ejected while Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus was suspended one game for punching Toronto centre-fielder Kevin Pillar.
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said it was “gutless” for the Rangers to go after Bautista when they did.
“The other 29 teams, if they’ve got an issue they come at you right away,” he said. “To wait until the end [of the season series] it just kind of tells me something about them.”
Texas skipper Jeff Banister attributed the bad blood to “two hard-nosed ball clubs that love to play the game of baseball and go at it hard.”
The ALDS begins Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET in what promises to be another emotional series.
“Everybody knows what happened this year,” Bautista said. “Hopefully we can put them out of the playoffs.”
Doug Harrison, CBC Sports | Photo: cbc.ca | Video: MLB via Youtube
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