Walking off to Texas

img_20161004_235120This much is for sure: the Toronto Blue Jays don’t do playoffs boring — and last night’s 5-2 walkoff win over Baltimore before nearly 50,000 delirious fans at the Rogers Centre in the AL win-or-go-home Wild Card game was no exception.

It’s a game that will be remembered as much for Edwin Encarnacion’s mammoth 11th inning three-run homer as for Buck Showalter’s decision not to bring in ace closer Zach Britton when the chips were down.  Unfortunately, it will also be remembered for a very dangerous and unfortunate beer-tossing incident in the 7th inning that reminded baseball fans everywhere of the ugliness seen in Game 5 of the ALDS last year.  There were so many storylines in this game it’s hard to recap, but here’s my best shot at it.

Going in, everyone questioned the starting pitching matchup, Marcus Stroman vs. Chris Tillman.  Both pitched better than many expected, Stroman being lifted after 6 in a 2-2 tie, and Tillman getting the hook in the 5th with runners on, the one move that did work out for Buck Showalter as a double play ended a promising Blue Jays rally.  The big bats had an impact and struck early on both sides — Jose Bautista’s opening home run salvo in the 2nd was answered by AL leader Mark Trumbo with a two-run rope in the 4th.

There can be no excuse for the ugly incident at the end of the 7th inning where a beer can was hurled directly at Orioles outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, nearly hitting him as he was about to catch a fly ball.  A report that racial epithets were also directed at Kim appears to be more of a piece of amateurish journalism based on a quote from Adam Jones that was misinterpreted by a reporter, as many fans at the game deny hearing any such remarks.  I’m sure we all hope that’s the case.

While questions around Britton’s lack of use will linger in perpetuity, there are now questions around the health of Jays closer Roberto Osuna, who left the game in the 10th after feeling some kind of shoulder twinge (fortunately it’s that and nothing related to his surgically repaired elbow).  Osuna told reporters he expects to be ready for Friday, and hopefully that’s accurate.

In the end, this game came down to the two pitchers who were overlooked for the starting assigments.  Francisco Liriano relieved Osuna and was spot on, throwing a clean 1 2/3 innings (I dare say if need be, he’s worth considering in a closing spot if Osuna isn’t able to go based on how he looked last night).  Ubaldo Jimenez, with little relief experience, came on to face the top of the Jays order in the 11th, and gave up two straight hits to Travis and Donaldson before Encarnacion’s heroics.

Showalter chose the worst of three options before him once Donaldson reached base.  Rather than pitch to the American League co-RBI leader, he could have: a) Got Britton up again while intentionally walking Encarnacion, giving him time to warm up to face Bautista (Britton, who was 47 of 47 in save opportunities and had a 0.54 ERA during a historic season, had already been up three times previous to this so it wouldn’t have taken long) or b) walk Encarnacion and let Jimenez face Bautista, who was 3 for 38 lifetime against him.  Either of those choices gave the Orioles better odds of getting out of the 11th inning with the game still tied.  Showalter’s downfall here is simply this:  he failed to recognize that this was THE moment in the game that called for his best.  What Showalter ultimately did do led to one of the great moments in Blue Jays franchise history, and another great memory for this generation of Jays fans across Canada.

What this means for the futures of Bautista, Encarnacion and manager John Gibbons remains to be seen.  It will be difficult to see how Gibbons isn’t back next year now.  I opined pre-season that a front-weighted, 4-year/$100 million deal with club and player options for Bautista wouldn’t have been out of line.  I have trouble seeing him getting that now post-season success aside — but Encarnacion will certainly garner offers in that range, perhaps larger.   Can the Jays re-sign him at that level of payout, and if they do, how do they add a left-handed or switch-hitting bat to give this lineup the balance it clearly needs?  Time will tell.

So we all got what we wanted: the Toronto-Texas rematch.  I highly doubt we’ll see another dustup like the Odor-Bautista donnybrook in May, but make no mistake the tensions are boiling just under the surface, and who knows what might reignite them. The Rangers are an improved ball club from last year, while the Blue Jays are in some ways, and aren’t in others.  But this team has proven it’s battle-tested, and I expect another intense, hotly contested ALDS.  It’s must-see baseball.  For the record, I’d start Happ and Estrada on the road (in either order), and let Sanchez take Game 3 in Toronto on Sunday in a more friendly setting.  It will be interesting to see what John Gibbons decides.  Hold on to your hats, beer and any other loose items that may shift around the cabin…a fun few days awaits.