Marco Estrada was on the mound.
Brett Gardner was at the plate.
Jose Fernandez was in their hearts.
That’s how the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees started things Sunday afternoon on a day when many were thinking of the tragic death of the Miami Marlins ace, rather than the task at end.
But despite the gloomy mood around the entire sport of baseball, the attention quickly returned to a heated American League wild-card race once Fernandez was honoured with a moment of silence at Rogers Centre.
On the field, the game Sunday started in the exact same fashion as the previous day — with Jose Bautista leading the way.
It ended in wild, wacky, entertaining fashion, with three lead changes in the final two innings finishing in a 4-3 Blue Jays win, their third-straight victory over the Yankees.
Early on, Estrada followed up Marcus Stroman’s mound brilliance by dealing six shutout innings to begin the game, before the suddenly-scorching Bautista provided some instant offence in the fourth inning with his 21st home run of the season, a solo shot, which came on the heels of his three-run blast that secured Saturday’s win.
Then, after the Yankees finally found a run, their first since Wednesday on a seventh inning solo home run from shortstop Didi Gregorius to tie the game 1-1, Bautista was at it again.
Thanks to a keen eye and some savvy base-running by Josh Donaldson to earn a free pass, swipe second base, and then advance to third on an Edwin Encarnacion groundout, Bautista came through in a clutch moment once again, lacing an RBI single to centre to give the Blue Jays a 2-1 lead.
With Roberto Osuna trotting in from the bullpen to start the ninth inning, it looked like the Blue Jays were on the verge of their third win in as many days against the Yanks.
Not so fast.
Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira singled to start the inning.
Pinch-hitter Billy Butler did the same.
Two batters later, outfielder Mason Williams singled to tie the game, and a sacrifice fly off the bat of No. 9 hitter Ronald Torreyes scored Donovan Solano to give the Yankees their first lead of the series and hand Osuna his fourth blown save of the year.
The Blue Jays didn’t roll over, though.
Melvin Upton Jr., after falling behind 0-2 in the count, worked a leadoff walk and then went first to third on a Kevin Pillar single.
Manager John Gibbons dug into his bag of tricks, putting the squeeze bunt on, and Ezequiel Carrera executed to tie the game 3-3.
After Devon Travis struck out, Donaldson was intentionally walked to load the bases.
Needing just a deep fly ball to win the game, Encarnacion bounced one into the hole between first base and second base that easily allowed the Blue Jays (86-69) to walk off with the win.
The late craziness was the opposite of the first few innings.
Having been shut out by the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday and then blanked in the first two games of this series in Toronto, the Yankees didn’t give Estrada many problems until Gregorius belted a cutter on a 1-1 count that carried out of the park in the right-field alley for his 19th homer of the season.
With the game deadlocked and runs clearly at a premium once again, Gibbons decided to play some small ball — something he’s resigned himself to doing more frequently over the past three weeks, as he’s watched his offence struggle to consistency produce with runners on base — after Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Saunders ripped back-to-back singles to start the bottom half of the seventh.
Pillar laid down a successful sacrifice bunt to move them up 90 feet, but Yankees reliever Adam Warren proceeded to strike out both Carrera and Travis to end the threat.
Thanks to New York starter Michael Pineda striking out seven in 5 2/3 innings — Pineda gave up just three hits, including the Bautista bomb, but also walked three in his 31st start of the season — the Blue Jays struck out nine times through seven frames, leaving six runners on base.
Estrada’s day was done after seven innings of four-hit ball, striking out seven, but Joaquin Benoit gave up a leadoff double to Gardner to begin the eighth, once again making for some anxious late-game moments for the 47,896 in attendance.
Similar to Warren, though, the 39-year-old veteran, who has been invaluable to the Blue Jays since being acquired from the Seattle Mariners in July, pitched his way out of trouble, getting Jacoby Ellsbury to fly out and then striking out catcher Gary Sanchez and Gregorius.
That allowed Bautista to provide some eighth-inning heroics for the second-straight day, but that was erased when Osuna gave up the lead in the ninth, until the Blue Jays pulled out their own eraser to steal the win and their slim AL wild-card lead.
The final game of the series against the Yankees goes Monday, with J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.28 ERA) heading to the hill for Toronto.
Scott Mitchell via Toronto Sun | Photo: Fred Thornhill, AP
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