The tiebreaker scenarios at play will make your head spin. To keep all the permutations straight, it helps to have a spreadsheet, if not an analytics department. But right now for the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers, all that matters is that an entire season worth of work rides on what happens Sunday in Game No. 162.
One game, after 161, with the potential to decide them all.
“That’s what we all play for,” said Kevin Pillar, who drove in the first three Blue Jays runs and helped set up the fourth with a key sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning of a heart-stopping 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Saturday night. “We understand what we’re playing for, we understand how bad we’ve been playing, too.
“Everything is still in front of us, we have a chance to get back to the post-season which is insanely difficult to do. And for us to be on the verge of going to back-to-back post-seasons, is a huge accomplishment.”
That holds especially true after the Blue Jays took back control of their own fate despite blowing a save for the fifth time in the past seven games when Roberto Osuna, on the verge of escaping a two-on, none-out jam left for him by Jason Grilli in the eighth, allowed the tying run to score on a balk, of all things.
But they kept home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott from a dubious place in franchise history by rallying in the ninth against the erratic Craig Kimbrel, with Ezequiel Carrera’s sacrifice fly scoring pinch-runner Dalton Pompey with the go-ahead run.
Osuna then locked things down with a boss bottom of the ninth to put the Blue Jays on the cusp, in combination with Baltimore’s 7-3 loss to the New York Yankees and Detroit’s 5-3 defeat to the Atlanta Braves. The Blue Jays and Orioles are now tied for the wild-card lead and are guaranteed at least a Game 163, with the Tigers falling 1.5 games off the pace. The Seattle Mariners were eliminated after a 9-8 loss in 10 innings to the Oakland Athletics.
“We had the lead, the tying run scores on a balk and I was wondering about the baseball gods,” said manager John Gibbons. “Then a great job in that last inning to manufacture a run.”
That part is particularly key, as the Blue Jays ended a 16-game losing streak when they don’t hit a home run, collecting their first victory without a dinger since July 25 against San Diego. They managed just four hits but augmented their attack with seven walks. Given their troubles pushing across runs of late, the ability to create some offence is essential.
“You’re not always going to score but whenever you can get a leadoff walk or the cliché two-out walk, it tends to hurt pitchers,” said Michael Saunders, whose walk in the sixth set up one run and leadoff walk in the ninth led to the winning score. “Luckily we were able to be patient and manufacture some runs. It’s, I’m not going to say rare, but we typically score on home runs, getting guys on and hopefully hitting that two- or three-run homer. Tonight, Zeke was able to clutch up in the ninth there. … That’s what we’re going to have to do to win games.”
Runs are likely to be hard to come by again Sunday when Aaron Sanchez, lined up for the final day of season back in August, takes on David Price, last summer’s gilt-edged trade deadline acquisition who helped the Blue Jays win the AL East before joining the Red Sox as a free agent, winning the division with them.
Getting into this position wasn’t easy.
Pitching through a relentless, pestering mist J.A. Happ struggled with his command in the first, walking the bases loaded with two out before Chris Young’s single just in front of Pillar in centre scored two.
The Blue Jays charged right back in the second as Eduardo Rodriguez loaded the bases on three straight walks and after a Melvin Upton Jr., strikeout, Pillar lashed a two-run single that knotted things up. An opportunity to tack on runs slipped away when Carrera and Devon Travis struck out to end the inning.
Happ and Rodriguez settled in from there and the deadlock remained until the sixth, when Rodriguez issued a leadoff walk to Russell Martin before leaving the game. A Saunders walk pushed him to second and Pillar followed with an RBI single that gave the Blue Jays the lead.
“Kevin can do that,” said Gibbons. “He’ll go through his spells where he’s cold and, really, overly aggressive and then the next thing you know he gets a couple of big hits.”
That lead stood until the eighth, when Grilli, out for a second inning of work, allowed a leadoff double to Mookie Betts and walked Hanley Ramirez. Gibbons turned to Osuna who promptly induced a 4-6-3 double play from Brock Holt, but proceeded to balk in the tying run while trying to step off the mound as he faced Jackie Bradley Jr.
“Russ gave me the sign that the guy was swinging,” Osuna said through interpreter Josue Peley. “He called for a cutter, and in my windup I changed my mind, but it was too late.”
Kimbrel gave that run back in the top of the ninth, as he issued a leadoff walk to Saunders, who was replaced by Pompey. Pillar then dropped a sacrifice bunt – no simple task give how wild Kimbrel’s stuff is – and that proved pivotal as a wild pitch followed to move Pompey to third. Carrera then capped a seven-pitch at-bat with a fly ball to left and Pompey just beat a strong throw from Holt home.
“I said a couple of prayers to whatever god I believe in, whether it’s the Jewish one, the Christian one, the Catholic one, the baseball gods were with me, too,” Pillar said of the challenge in bunting Kimbrel. “But a guy like that, you really just have to look centre-cut, right down the middle. If it’s not there, he’s an extremely tough guy to bunt, tough guy to face. Sometimes when you bunt you can get stagnant and wait on the pitch, so you try to stay athletic, and at the end of the day you’ve got to put your sack on the line and get it done.”
The Blue Jays did in the top half of the ninth, Osuna was money in the bottom half, and they’re now a win away from a post-season that was almost out of reach at the beginning of the day, and within their grasp at the end of it.
Shi Davidi via sportsnet.ca
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