ARLINGTON, TEXAS—Now that was a counter-punch.
From the Blue Jays to the Rangers. From Jose Bautista to the Lone Star State and mama don’t let your cowboys grow up to be babies.
For the sucker roundhouse laid on Bautista by a 22-year-old punk nearly five months ago. For the deliberate beaning of Bautista, by an ex-felon reliever, in that same game — Bautista’s last at-bat in the last regular-season tango between these two mutually-loathing clubs. For the endless obsession with Bautista’s iconic bat flip from a year ago and you’d think it was a no-fair kick to the gonads, so bitterly have the Rangers mythologized that episode and demonized the player. Gall has seeped like a pathogen into the very marrow of their bones.
A 10-1 wallop at Globe Life Park by the team that backed into the post-season against the team that clinched ages ago, taking over the American League West lead on May 29th and parking their booty there permanently.
Just the entree in a best-of-five American League Division Series. But what a hummer of a game, bracketed by eight-plus innings of four-hit ball by unflappable Toronto starter Marco Estrada — one stinking run surrendered in the bottom of the ninth his only utterly meaningless blemish — and a crescendo three-run jack from Bautista as quasi-epilogue.
Gently gently gently laying down the bat before embarking on his home-run trot. Analyze that.
It was his second homer in Toronto’s second post-season game of 2016 and the sixth of his career, tying Bautista with Joe Carter for most in franchise history.
Texas was already bleeding out by then but it was the kill shot.
“I feel happy that we won the ball game,” Bautista observed mildly afterwards, refusing to rise to the bait of a cock-strut. “Coming off of having to claw our way back into the playoffs in the wild-card game. Putting up a lot of runs feels good, especially when you’re backing a start like Marco had today.”
Yes, let’s not lose sight of the remarkably assured mound from performance by Estrada — replicating the elimination-averting start from ALDS 2015 between these same teams, except there was no do-or-die dimension Thursday. Just the chance to put an early stamp on this series.
“You look back at the playoff games he pitched last year, backs against the wall,” said manager John Gibbons. “He dominated. Then he goes out and does that again today. He’s a master at his craft. He was sticking it today.
“Probably as good as any pitcher I’ve ever had, in crunch time, he gets in those jams, he’s Houdini.”
There weren’t any jams on this day. Just jelly for the Jays in front of a stunned-into-silence crowd.
“Obviously scoring seven runs by the fourth, that’s gonna keep a lot of people quiet,” Estrada offered. “It makes pitching a little funner.”
Estrada, who had his mom, wife and kids in the audience here, is allowed to make up words like “funner”.
Still grinning, despite being pulled two outs away from his first career complete game.
“I was looking at Gibby the whole time. I was yelling, I got it, I got. Once you see him pointing, there’s nothing else you can do about it. I don’t really care to be honest. That’s all that matters.”
Game 1 went permanently pear-shaped for the Rangers in the third, an inning that began innocuously enough with Ezequiel Carrera working a five-pitch walk off starter Cole Hamels and crossing himself as he jogged to first. He seemed a bit excessively grateful to The Big Guy for a base on balls.
Actually — get me rewrite — the inning began with a near home-run by Melvin Upton Jr., seized at the wall on a spectacular back-hand catch by Shin-Soo Choo, just back from a fractured forearm. Upton is the salient point here and we’ll return to him in a minute.
Hamels, veteran of 15 post-season starts and a former World Series MVP, may have thought himself nicely in control nevertheless, with Devon Travis an easy groundout for the second out. Cleaving to a pitching plan designed around pounding Jays batters inside, Hamels pounded one to the backstop, however, wild pitching with Josh Donaldson in the box and Carrera prancing along to second.
Donaldson doubled sharply down the right-field line, the ball flicking off Adrian Beltre’s glove, while Carrera came pounding around with the first run of the game. Meanwhile, Donaldson was charging hard into second, an aggressive slide directly at Rougned Odor, shades of last May 15 and Bautista over-sliding the bag and KA-POW, cold-cocked in the face. Except on this occasion, Donaldson was ruled safe and Odor didn’t cheap-shot him.
Another touch of glove-love next as Edwin Encarnacion’s bitty hit deflected off Hamels’ leather, rolling to third with no play for Beltre, Double-E safe at first, Donaldson safe at third.
Cue the boo-birds, second time around, as Bautista dug in at the plate in what became a grinding at-bat, fouling off four pitches in a row before lining a single up the middle, scoring Donaldson.
It only got worse for Hamels as the shadows began creeping across the field, flailing inside the swirling tornado funnel of that third inning. Russell Martin walked on five pitches, loading the bases for Troy Tulowitzki. Tulowitzki, you might recall, who swatted the three-run jack in Game 3 last year, which reversed the ALDS for keeps. This time, it was merely a 400-foot triple for Tulowitzki.
By the time Kevin Pillar made the last out, Hamels had barely survived a bat-around, five-run, four-hit, 42-pitch inning.
After the Rangers were set down badda-bing badda-bang badda-boom by Estrada in the bottom half of the third, the Jays picked up immediately where they’d left off.
Re-enter Upton (see above). Thwack — on an 0-2 pitch over the left-field wall. While disgruntled fans back in Toronto may have come to think of Upton as a strikeout bore since arriving at the trade deadline. But that was Junior’s eighth career post-season. The first seven were in 2008, as a Tampa Bay Ray.
And then it got weird. Deja-vu weird, at least, for Elvis Andrus, who wore the double-error goat horns in Toronto’s seventh inning rally, circa Game 5 ALDS ’15 and has been all over the media in recent days talking about how he’s over it, no thanks for asking, but redemption would be fine. Because he’s not that Elvis anymore.
Except on this afternoon he was exactly that, pulling Mitch Moreland off the bag in the fourth in what should have been an easy ground-ball pfhht for Travis. Deja E-5 instead, Travis safe, then scooting to second on a passed ball with Donaldson batting. The reigning MVP hit a little flare to centre, reaching safely in five consecutive plate appearances while starting to put a whole lot of gone between himself and a horrid September, and Travis had coming across with Toronto’s seventh run.
Rosie Dimanno via The Star | Photo: embed.scribblelive.com
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