TORONTO – It was the ugliest inning you could ever imagine. Then it became the inning the Blue Jays and their fans who span from coast to coast will never forget.
It was 53 minutes of chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen in October. You can take Pete Rose fighting Bud Harrelson, Joba Chamberlain losing a battle with the midges of Cleveland or any other bizarre happenstance you can think of from postseasons past and I’ll raise you this one.
We were staring down a riot in Rogers Centre and perhaps throughout downtown Toronto. Then things turned riotous in the happiest way possible.
The Blue Jays are going to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1993 after Wednesday’s 6-3 win over the Texas Rangers. They overcame some bad luck and some massively confusing umpiring to get plenty of luck of their own. And they then turned their sudden good fortune into a victory with one swing.
Jose Bautista did the honors, clubbing a three-run homer to left with two outs in the seventh to snap the tie and capitalize on three Texas errors against the first three Toronto hitters in the inning. And when Bautista connected off Rangers reliever Sam Dyson, he pimped it like you would not believe. Stood and watched the ball soar into the seats and then fired the bat away before taking his jaunt around the bases.
“I knew I had done something great for the team. I don’t remember much after that,” Bautista said in the clubhouse as the champagne and beer flew all around him. “I ran around the bases and it wasn’t until I got to the dugout that I started coming to again and knew where I was.”
The crowd was completely wild, roaring and furiously waving its white towels. The players poured from the dugout, bursting several feet on to the field to greet their right fielder, a veteran making his first appearance in the postseason after more than 1,400 games in the big leagues.
“We erupted. It was a special moment,” said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. “Besides Joe Carter, that’s got to be the biggest home run in Blue Jays history.”
Carter, of course, won the 1993 World Series with his walk-off blast. Roberto Alomar’s three-run shot off Dennis Eckersley during a 1992 ALCS battle of future Hall of Famers is pretty highly regarded in these parts as well, but that didn’t win a series like this one did.
“There’s no one more deserving than Jose Bautista for that moment,” said pitcher Marcus Stroman, who gave the Jays six strong innings. “He’s been waiting 13, 14 years and stepped up in the biggest moment possible. Watching that, my whole body went numb.”
“At that moment, I’m just a fan,” said catcher Russell Martin, who had been lifted for a pinch-runner. “He comes through with one of the biggest homers I’ve ever seen. He loves being in those moments. The whole stadium erupted. I’ve never seen a stadium so alive.”
Imagine the relief the head honchos of MLB – and the Toronto police – must have had after this one. In the top of the inning, there were two outs in a 2-2 game and a man on third. Martin’s routine throw back to the mound struck Shin-Soo Choo’s hand and bat as the Texas right fielder stood in the batter’s box and the ball rolled away, allowing Rougned Odor to scoot home and give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.
Confusion reigned. Did plate ump Dale Scott call time? Isn’t the ball dead? After a discussion, Odor’s trip home was ruled legal. Toronto manager John Gibbons bolted from the dugout to argue. Players huddled on the field with umpires and the crowd went nuts.
It took 18 minutes and a trip to the replay headphones in New York to figure things out. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said later the umpires got it right, that the ball was live. Scott met reporters and took blame for the confusion, saying his timeout call had created needless trouble.
The delay was easily one of the ugliest moments the Blue Jays’ franchise has ever seen from its fans. Full cans of beer were flying from the 500 level above the press box on to the field. Television cameras showed a woman holding a baby near the Toronto dugout getting struck. Players came out of the dugout pleading for the cascade to stop, with little success.
“I’ve seen some crazy things but that was pretty intense,” said Tulowitzki. “Beer cans getting launched from the top deck made it pretty dangerous out there.”
What if the Rangers had actually won the game by the 3-2 score and ended the Blue Jays’ season? Imagine how ugly things could have turned outside the ballpark and downtown on Yonge Street. There were thoughts in the press box of the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2011.
How serious did it feel? Mayor John Tory put out two urgent tweets during the inning, including one that pleaded, “Don’t hurt each other or our city over this. We can prove ourselves in more ways than one.”
Maybe Hizzoner’s words proved prophetic.
First the Baseball Gods clearly gave back to the Blue Jays. The first three Toronto batters all reached on errors, two by Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus. One was on Martin’s leadoff grounder, the other when he dropped Adrian Beltre’s throw covering third on a Ryan Goins sacrifice. The Blue Jays got the tying run when Odor failed to catch Josh Donaldson’s blooper to short right but recovered quickly enough to get a force at second as Kevin Pillar crossed the plate.
Then came Bautista. One swing. And another step closer to the Blue Jays’ first World Series since the Carter days.
“What a team full of guys full of fortitude. That’s all I can say,” said pitcher R.A. Dickey. “What a team we have, to win after taking two games on the road with our backs against the wall. We absorbed the moment. It was fantastic.”