Games like this used to be common for the Toronto Blue Jays. Catch a starter that’s a little off his game, drop some ‘bows early and often, cruise to victory. Not lately though, not through a September that’s really tested their fortitude. So sure, the 39-minute, eight-run fourth inning they laid on the Seattle Mariners in a 10-2 demolition Tuesday night was somewhat cathartic, a reminder Michael Saunders and Josh Donaldson and the rest of a largely cold lineup amid fall’s approach can still singe.
That the outburst came in support of J.A. Happ, in front of another predominantly Crazy Canuck crowd of 33,573 at Safeco Field, was fitting. The club’s steadiest starter didn’t get the all-star nods teammates Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez received, but instead became a 20-game winner for the first time, and only the sixth pitcher to reach the plateau in franchise history.
It’s a just reward for his superb season and if he receives no further accolades, he’ll always have that to his name.
“As we’re going through the season I’m focused on the day-to-day, and the preparation but you don’t get to that number without having great teammates and I’m really grateful to be on this team,” said Happ. “They’ve been showing up all year long, it’s been a lot of fun. Special shout out to Russell Martin, who got me through a lot of those, a lot of battles so far this year, hopefully we got a lot more to go.”
The Red Sox remain four games up in the American League East and while that race is likely lost with only 11 games remaining for both clubs, the Blue Jays can at least try to make it interesting if their offence continues to rebound.
“It’s about continuing to make things happen, guy after guy, having that focus,” said Jose Bautista, who started the decisive rally with a hard-fought base hit. “I can’t tell you why, but the last two days, the focus, collectively, every pitch, has been completely different than the previous two, which is obviously great to see. Over the course of 162 you’re going to have those days where it gets kind of funky, and it gets augmented and magnified, looks worse when it happens in the middle of a playoff run, so I’m sure people were a little disappointed with that. But we’ve turned it up a notch here.”
Things didn’t start well Tuesday, as a couple of misplays at second base by Devon Travis in the third led to a 2-0 Mariners lead – the key one being a two-out Robinson Cano grounder that hit off his knee and ricocheted to right field for an absurdly scored triple that brought home two runs.
But the Mariners repaid that with a mistake of their own in the fourth, as Chris Iannetta settled under a foul popper by Bautista behind the plate and had it nick off his glove for an error.
Given new life, Bautista capped a nine-pitch at-bat against long-time Jays-killer Hishasi Iwakuma with a single to right field, and scored three pitches later when Martin parked a 2-0 slider over the wall in left, his 20th homer of the season.
Troy Tulowitzki followed with a single and Saunders then launched his 24th homer of the season far over the wall in right, ending a drought of 41 at-bats without a homer or an RBI. Kevin Pillar doubled, Ezequiel Carrera singled him home. Nick Vincent took over from Iwakuma and Carrera promptly came around to score from first when he made a brilliant read on a Travis bloop just inside the right-field foul line.
The hits in seven consecutive plate appearances were a first for the Blue Jays since May 15, 2009, while the Blue Jays fans celebrated in the stands.
“Especially at this point of the season, late September, everyone’s banged up, everyone’s grinding a little bit, that’s not just us, that’s everybody,” said Saunders. “To come out here and have that support from the fans, they’re loud and rowdy, they get us riled up a little so we love playing in front of them.”
Donaldson kept the line moving in the fourth with a walk and Edwin Encarnacion sent a ball into the right-field corner to score two more. The Blue Jays last had nine straight batters reach base last June 12 at Fenway Park during a nine-run seventh inning.
In the sixth, Donaldson ended a run of 59 consecutive at-bats without a home run while Encarnacion added his 42nd of the season in the eighth, to match a career best and push the Blue Jays into double digits for the first time since a 15-8 win over the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 26.
“It was just what we needed,” said manager John Gibbons.
Happ, meanwhile, went five innings, allowing the two runs on six hits and a walk with eight strikeouts, in becoming the first 20-game winner for the Blue Jays since Roy Halladay in 2008.
“One, you have to keep your team in the game almost every time you go out there, you have to be consistent, you have to have a quality start, man, and that’s what he’s done so many times this year,” said Martin. “He’s just been consistent, he’s been throwing strikes, attacking the zone all year long, and consistency, that’s the one thing you search for in this game. To get 20 wins you have to do that.”
Jack Morris, Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens and David Wells are the other pitchers in Blue Jays history to win 20 games, and of that group, only Morris went to the playoffs in the season he reached the plateau.
Happ, behind a reawakening offence, is intent on expanding that list.
Shi Davidi, sportsnet.ca
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