ST. PETERSBURG – One more word.
That’s about all it would have taken for Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin to get rinsed by home plate umpire Pat Hoberg for arguing over a third strike in the fourth inning of Sunday’s series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Hoberg had rung Martin up on a pitch he felt was not a strike and the two men argued briefly at home plate. As Martin walked away still arguing, Hoberg took notice and seemed to be coming to a moment of decision.
In that instant, manager John Gibbons jumped into the fray and took one for the team, making sure it was himself, and not his star catcher, who got ejected.
“It shows he has our back, and that’s all you can ask for from your manager,” Martin said. “He weathered the storm, took the heat for everybody and kept some guys in the game — myself included — while he was doing that.”
That moment would become huge later on when Martin was green-lighted on a 3-0 pitch with a runner on base in the eighth inning of a 3-3 tie. He hammered the ball into the left field seats for what turned out to be a game-winning two-run homer.
The 5-3 victory also prevented the Jays from absorbing their first three-game losing streak in two-and-a-half months, sending them to New York for a three-game series against the Yankees on a high note.
“We get on the bird and have a happy flight,” Martin said. “Any time you can come back and score some runs to win a game, it feels good. It took some heat off Happ. I felt like he threw the ball pretty well. They were just fighting him.”
Martin was referring to his batterymate, J.A. Happ, who had his second-worst outing of the year Sunday, lasting only 2.2 innings and needing 85 pitches to get eight outs. He was fortunate to get out of the game trailing only by a 3-1 score.
“I give (the Rays) credit,” said Happ, who ended up with a no-decision, leaving his season record at 17-4. “That’s a good team, but at the same time, I wasn’t as sharp as I can be. I didn’t make it very easy on myself, either.”
Relievers Danny Barnes and Scott Feldman knit together 3.1 innings of scoreless relief, but the Jays were having a tough time getting anything going against Tampa Bay ace Chris Archer.
Down 3-1 heading to the seventh inning, the Jays were able to get Archer out of the game and then made short work of reliever Brad Boxberger to tie the game on a clutch two-run single by Devon Travis.
That set the stage for Martin’s heroics. With Kevin Jepsen on the mound for Tampa Bay, Dioner Navarro walked on five pitches. Dalton Pompey came on to run and stole second base on the first pitch to Martin.
Two pitches later, Martin had the green light on a 3-0 count and didn’t miss it. It landed about 10 rows deep in left field for his 17th homer of the year.
“Typically you’re looking for a pitch out over the middle of the plate and that’s what I got,” Martin said.
“There’s only one pitch, one spot and if it’s not there, you take it. If it’s there you’ve got to let it rip and it ended up in my happy zone.”
It was Happ’s worst outing since these same Tampa Bay Rays flayed him for eight runs in two innings during a 13-2 slaughter back in May. Remarkably, he was able to hold the Rays to three runs, and the bullpen picked him up. Barnes, Feldman, Joaquin Benoit, Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna combined for 6.1 scoreless innings and by that time, the Jays had turned the tide in their favour.
“That was huge that the bullpen was able to keep us in the game,” Happ said. “Dev and Russell got two huge hits for us. It was a great team win.”
After Archer fanned Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson to start the game, Edwin Encarnacion doubled to the wall in right-centre. He then scored when Navarro leaked a single between first and second base. On the throw to the plate, Navarro strayed too far off first base and was caught off the base for the third out, but only after Encarnacion had scored to make it 1-0.
It was obvious right from the start that Happ didn’t have it. Logan Forythe and Kevin Kiermaier each singled, then Forsythe scored on Evan Longoria’s double. Kiermaier later scored on a sacrifice fly by Matt Duffy to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead after the first inning, which saw Happ use up 30 pitches.
Somehow, Happ got through the second inning unscathed despite issuing a pair of walks and giving up some more hard contact. Once again, he squandered a lot of pitches and needed 61 to get the first six outs.
It didn’t get any better in the third inning. He got two fly ball outs to start, then yielded three consecutive singles, with Corey Dickerson driving in Duffy for Tampa’s third run, signalling the end of Happ’s day.
In the seventh inning, with one out, Tulowitzki singled to right-centre, ending Archer’s day. Brad Boxberger came out of the bullpen and immediately yielded a single to Michael Saunders and a walk to Kevin Pillar.
That loaded the bases for Travis, who ripped a single between short and third, scoring both Tulowitzki and Saunders to tie the game.
Now that August has turned to September and the stakes begin to grow with each passing day, you might think these moments could become too big for a young player like Travis. Not so.
“When things get tough, I just follow the example of our big dogs — guys that have been doing it for a long time,” Travis said. “When you walk into this clubhouse, you would never know what happened the day before. I just take after them and understand that every day is a new day.”
The last time the Blue Jays lost three games in a row was more than 50 games ago, on June 18, 19 and 21. The first two losses were against Baltimore and the third was to Arizona. Since that time, they haven’t lost more than two in a row.
“After you lose two in a row, you definitely don’t want to lose three in a row and get swept by a team,” Martin said. “We were able to pull it off and now we’re looking forward to getting to New York.”
At the end of the day, Osuna got his 30th save of the season — but on this day, the true save might have gone to Gibbons.
“No question,” said acting manager DeMarlo Hale. “Gibby did his job. He kept all our guys in the ballgame, let them play and let them win it.”
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