SEATTLE – The Toronto Blue Jays looked poised to blitz through September en route to another American League East title when they took two of three from the Baltimore Orioles to close out August. They were up by two games, playing good baseball, in total control. Then the calendar turned, they played terrible series at Tampa Bay and New York, were totally dreadful during a 13-3 whipping from the Boston Red Sox in the opener of a home series they lost, held a team meeting, and have been reeling since.
Monday at Safeco Field, in their most important game of the season to date, the team they can be reappeared. Marco Estrada pitched like the all-star he is with seven innings of one-hit ball. Edwin Encarnacion delivered the big blow. Some smart situational baseball tacked on an extra run. Kevin Pillar stole both hits and bases. And the uber-enthusiastic masses of turnt hosers that swelled the audience to 34,809 egged them on every step of the way in a 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.
One game is one game, and it will mean nothing Tuesday when J.A. Happ faces Hisashi Iwakuma. But to show up the way the Blue Jays did against a direct post-season competitor after a 5-11 start to the month and two demoralizing losses to the Los Angeles Angels to close out the weekend really mattered.
“Maybe the cool weather refreshed us a little bit but that’s normally how we play,” said manager John Gibbons. “We had a couple of tough games, nobody wants to hear it, but sometimes that happens. Every player in the league is on fumes, that’s just the way it goes, but Marco stepped up. It reminded me a lot of that playoff game against Kansas City last year, when we really needed a win he went deep in the game, and he got rewarded for it.”
That Estrada left to an overwhelming standing ovation in a road park underlined how much of a presence the Blue Jays fans were, and the post-game comments about them was no mere lip service.
“It’s incredible to see how many fans make it out to these games and it’s a lot of fun to play here,” said Estrada. “Obviously it’s an extremely tough team to play against but we felt like we were the home team and that gave us a little bit more energy. It’s something we have to build off, for sure, keep doing what we did today and with this team that we have, we should be pretty successful.”
Added Gibbons: “These Western Canadian fans are something special, hardnosed, they love you, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
With the victory, the Blue Jays moved back into a tie for the top wild-card spot with the Orioles, who fell 5-2 to the Red Sox, and pushed them three games clear of the Mariners. The idle Tigers are 2.5 games off the pace.
Still, not all was sunshine and lollipops. Josh Donaldson took issue with home plate umpire Chris Conroy calling a check-swing strike and then spat fire when he was called out looking on a sketchy third strike, getting himself ejected. His fury was such that both Encarnacion and Gibbons had to get in the way, and the reigning AL MVP can’t take himself out of a game of this magnitude.
Then there was the ulcer-inducing eighth, when Estrada walked leadoff man Leonys Martin, Jason Grilli took over and walked Ben Gamel and Seth Smith around a pair of outs, and Roberto Osuna came in and surrendered a line drive to the track in right field where Ezequiel Carrera was camped out.
Osuna surrendered a two-out single to Adam Lind and then a two-run shot to Martin before catching Gamel looking to end it.
September baseball, man, exhilarating and excruciating.
“This was a big game for us,” said Pillar. “We got off to a good start in Anaheim and didn’t show up the last two days. For him to come out here after not pitching his last couple of starts and step up and do what big-game pitchers do was awesome to see.”
Like it so often has on successful nights for the Blue Jays, things started with a dominant performance from their starter. Estrada had been in a mysterious slide of late, watching a pair of potential gems in recent outings unravel in an instant, with no real cause or explanation.
Smith, the second batter of the game, mashed a ball to deep centre field that Pillar chased down but Estrada then settled in, retiring his first 11 batters before issuing a pair of two-out walks in the fourth. Kyle Seager then sent a fading liner to centre field that Pillar slid to snare, triggering a massive roar.
“If that ball lands, it might be a run and who knows what happens after that,” said Estrada. “It builds my confidence knowing these guys are busting their butts behind me, playing as well as they are, it makes me feel that much better and you don’t have to worry about everything, you don’t have to worry about trying to strike everybody out. You let them make contact and you know you have an incredible defence behind you.”
Encarnacion, meanwhile, lined a single with an exit velocity of 103 mph off Taijuan Walker’s hand in the first and then got more loft on the ball in the third, when his 41st homer of the season left his bat at the same speed. The two-run shot came after Pillar singled and stole second.
The next inning Troy Tulowitzki opened the inning with a double off the top of the wall in left-centre, advanced to third on Carrera’s sacrifice bunt and after a Melvin Upton Jr., strikeout, scored on a Pillar single to right.
Jose Bautista and Devon Travis later added stolen bases, too, as the Blue Jays strayed from their typical static game and used their legs to put pressure on the Mariners.
“I ran into a pitcher I felt comfortable running on and that’s another way of bringing the energy,” said Pillar. “You saw Bautista do the same thing, Devon got a base. I wasn’t successful, but the dirt-ball read, too (in the ninth when he got thrown out trying to advance). When we’re not swinging the bats the way we know we’re capable of we have to manufacture runs and we have guys in here that can steal bases. Dirt-ball reads, that’s just paying attention, knowing what you’re going to do when you’re on first base, and it came at a time when we were up and we could afford to gamble. I had a lot of fun tonight.”
So too did Estrada, who didn’t allow a hit until Robinson Cano opened the seventh with a single, but he got the next three batters without issue. He struck out eight over his seven innings, his best outing since he beat the Orioles 5-1 on Aug. 29, bolstering the reputation he earned as a big-game pitcher last October.
“The biggest key was I was able to throw the changeup for strikes, I was around the plate with it, and I had a lot of swings on it, which is what I need,” said Estrada. “I need guys to try and make contact with it and for the most part I was getting weak contact with it, so that was the biggest key for sure.”
That it came in an hour of need for the Blue Jays made it all the more meaningful. Though they squandered chances to really open things up and make it a less stressful night, they looked alive in a way they haven’t for a while. They key now is to sustain it for at least two more weeks, and perhaps more.
Shi Davidi via Sports Net | Photo: Sports Net
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