TORONTO – One swing by Jose Bautista defined last October for the Toronto Blue Jays.
We’re about to find out if one swing by Edwin Encarnacion will serve as the catalyst for another long postseason run this October.
The Blue Jays’ slugging first baseman sent Rogers Centre and all of Canada into a frenzy late Tuesday night with a prodigious three-run home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to give Toronto a 5-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Wild Card Game.
The dramatic blast off Baltimore starter-turned-reliever Ubaldo Jimenez sent the Blue Jays into a division series matchup with the Texas Rangers for the second straight October. Get ready for replay upon replay of Bautista flipping his bat in Game Five last year and getting punched by Rougned Odor during the teams’ May brawl this season.
Oh, the baseball figures to be must-see TV too.
The teams haven’t met since their vicious May 15 brawl in Arlington but that will change come Thursday in Globe Life Park. The Blue Jays, ahem, punched their ticket when Encarnacion crushed a first-pitch fastball into the second deck in left.
A 42-homer slugger during the regular season, Encarnacion thrust his arms into the air at home plate and was mobbed by his teammates after he circled the bases. (For the record, there was no bat flip).
“I thank God to give me the opportunity,” Encarnacion said through an interpreter. “It was a very special moment, very special for me to get it. Thank God I did the job and for us, it worked out pretty well.”
“It’s great. Any time any teammate can do something like that we’re all going to enjoy it,” Bautista said. “I feel great that we won and everybody’s excited about the next round. Eddie keeps it simple. He has a great swing and he knows what to look for. He stayed calm, it was a very hittable fastball and he executed.”
Jimenez came on with one out in the 11th and promptly gave up a single to Devon Travis and another to Josh Donaldson, with Nolan Reimold bobbling the ball in left field and Travis alertly scooting to third. Encarnacion’s blast was the third straight Toronto hit on three pitches.
The Blue Jays were looking for a fly ball and Encarnacion gave them the no-doubt big fly they wanted to spark bedlam in the crowd of 49,934.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, who threw six strong innings. “It was chills, excitement. I kind of blacked out for a second. Unbelievable. Eddie has been clutch for us all year and it was just like the Bautista bomb last year in Game Five. Crazy. But we’re not done. We realize what we’re capable of and we’re going to take this confidence into the next series.”
Prior to the game, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was talking to reporters and mentioned that he understood some teams and fans might not like “one-game knockouts” after a 162-game regular season. But, Manfred said, the showdowns in each league serve as a tremendous kickoff to the postseason and that’s something baseball has grown to love since they were instituted in 2012.
Manfred’s words were prophetic as we were treated to just the second extra-inning Wild Card Game. In fact, it ended as just the fourth walkoff homer in a winner-take-all showdown in history. Encarnacion joins Bill Mazeroski (1960 World Series Game Seven), Chris Chambliss (1976 ALCS Game Five) and Aaron Boone (2003 ALCS Game Seven) as the only other players to accomplish the feat.
The Blue Jays blew a chance to win in the ninth after they put runners on first and second with no outs. Brad Brach fanned Bautista, and Darren O’Day got Russell Martin to ground into a double play.
That seemed to take Baltimore manager Buck Showalter off the hook for somehow not using closer Zach Britton in the ninth. He was 47 for 47 in save situations and had an ERA under 1.00 for the season. Where was Britton? The day before the game, he told reporters he was prepared to pitch two innings to preserve a lead if need be.
Was there an injury, perhaps something that happened in the bullpen while he was throwing during the late innings? Showalter said after the game he just opted not to use him in the 10th and 11th, too, and nothing was wrong. Riiiiight.
The Blue Jays, by the way, may have an issue going forward too as electric closer Roberto Osuna left with one out in the 10th after Encarnacion saw something while at first and called to the dugout. Osuna had some shoulder tightness and will be reevaluated.
The Orioles’ offense, meanwhile, looked hopelessly tight in this one. Through 11 innings against six Toronto pitchers, Baltimore had just four hits and five baserunners. From the seventh through the 11th, there were no hits, just one walk and 14 straight men were retired. Francisco Liriano got the win by retiring the final five Orioles.
The building was electric, just as it was during last year’s division series against Texas and during the ALCS against Kansas City. We’re talking big Canadian flag in center field, full-throated singing and towel-twirling in the stands.
The knucklehead report was filed in the bottom of the seventh as Toronto pinch-hitter Melvin Upton flied to left, where Baltimore’s Hyun Soo Kim was camped under it. Just then, a full beer can came flying out of seats just a couple feet from the startled Kim. He made the catch but took pause to look back behind him into the seats. So did center fielder Adam Jones, who was jawing with fans.
Bautista homered to left in the second to open the scoring, while Mark Trumbo touched Stroman for a two-run shot in the fourth to put the Orioles up, 2-1. Ezequiel Carrera’s RBI single in the fifth tied the game at 2-2.
Then it was time to dive headlong into several innings of tension-packed, winner-take-all baseball. After midnight, Carrera had a large inflatable parrot on the table in an interview area. Asked his name, he smiled and said in perfect English, “Eddie.”
The Blue Jays were all smiles because they’re off to Texas. They insist they’ll focus on baseball. But there’s going to be a lot of subplots.
“We’ve been playing a lot of tough games. Hopefully that keeps us on edge more than Texas has been,” Bautista said. “They’ve been hanging out, haven’t been playing those type of games with a lot of pressure, those can’t-lose games and we have.”
Bring it on, October. This was only night one. Give us five more Blue Jays-Rangers games.