TORONTO – I never imagined they would get to the 18th at the Rogers Centre before they did at the PGA Championship.
Really, I’m not sure I have the mental resources left to put the baseball game I saw Sunday afternoon – and into the early evening – into perspective.
It was long, that’s for sure. To be precise, it was the longest game in Blue Jays history, in innings and in clock time. It lasted 19 innings and took six hours, 37 minutes to complete, or the approximate length of two Oscar telecasts.
The game had a little bit of everything. There were two replays that went in the Jays’ favor, including a critical overturn of a stolen base in the bottom of the ninth. There were critical defensive plays, including two enormous catches by Toronto center fielder Colby Rasmus.
The Jays and Tigers combined for 39 hits, 19 walks, 33 strikeouts and 43 left on base. The Jays left more men than Elizabeth Taylor – 24 in all. Their bullpen tossed 15∏ scoreless innings, making up for another atrocious outing by Mark Buehrle, who was chased in the fourth.
But in the end, the Jays persevered for an exciting, 6-5 victory in 19 innings. For the second day in a row, they rallied from behind in the ninth inning and took two out of three from the AL Central-leading Tigers, whose bullpen let them down for the second day in a row.
It has been a turbulent month for the Jays, several of whom questioned management’s commitment to winning when the front office made no moves at the trade deadline. They had lost six of seven after blowing a two-run lead in the ninth in the series opener Friday.
But the Jays have a way of bouncing back when the skeptics write them off. After that crushing loss Friday, they answered with two comebacks of their own, rallying from a 5-0 deficit against ace lefty David Price in Sunday’s finale.
“It was a special game,” said manager John Gibbons, whose team flew to Seattle after the win to begin an eight-game road trip tonight against the Mariners. “They have a lot of character. We’ve had our ups and downs this year. But it’s a resilient group. When their back is against the wall, they have a nice win or a small streak.”
There was a tendency to dismiss the Jays after the trade deadline. The Tigers got Price. The A’s traded for Jon Lester. Even the Yankees and Red Sox made a deal. Alex Anthopoulos, the Toronto GM, stood pat. The players weren’t thrilled about it.
“Everybody does that at the deadline, and figures out a way to improve the roster,” Bautista said at the time. “We just somehow didn’t.”
But if management wasn’t serious about winning, the players sure are. Sunday’s victory, which required clutch efforts from almost the entire roster – many of whom have spent time with the Bisons this season – is the kind that can galvanize a team.
The Jays haven’t been at full strength, as management is quick to point out. Edwin Encarnacion, their star slugger, has been out. So has Adam Lind, a reliable veteran hitter. They’ve had some key injuries in their pitching staff.
In Sunday’s marathon, they got three one-hit, scoreless innings from rookie Aaron Sanchez from the seventh through the ninth. They got a gutsy performance from Chad Jenkins, who worked the final six innings, a season high, to pick up the win.
“Exhausted,” Jenkins said when asked how he felt after his first big-league win of the season. He said he had two good pitches left when he faced Andrew Romine with the go-ahead run at second in the 19th. He struck him out.
“I was out of gas,” Jenkins said. “I haven’t thrown six innings all year. I made a few starts in Buffalo, but that was two or three months ago and I think the most I went was 5∏. So I was running low on fumes.”
“For all the fans who sat through that, thank you,” Jenkins added. “To look up and see it’s 7:30 and there’s still people sitting there cheering and going nuts, it made it so much better.”
The people who stayed had to endure some bad baseball. You don’t go 19 innings without some pretty pathetic at-bats. I saw enough weak ground balls to second base to last me until 2015. The Jays certainly had enough chances to end it.
In the bottom of the seventh, they had two on with one out. Bautista struck out and Jose Reyes was gunned down trying to steal third. In the ninth, after Reyes’ single off Joba Chamberlain tied the game, 5-5, the Tigers intentionally walked Bautista to load the bases with two outs and Juan Francisco struck out.
In the 12th, the Jays got two men on with one out and didn’t score. They loaded the bases in the 13th with two outs and Bautista grounded weakly to second. In the 15th, they loaded them again and Francisco bounced to second. In the 16th, they had two on with two out and Munenori Kawasaki lined out.
In the 17th, they got the first two men on against Joe Nathan and couldn’t score.
“I don’t know if you saw my reaction when Cabrera smoked that ball,” said Jenkins. “I put my head down and went ‘Crap!’ because I thought that was long gone. Colby saved me twice today.”
With Jenkins on fumes, and the game threatening to go longer than the PGA, Rasmus made another gem in the 19th, sliding to take a hit away from Bryan Holaday with a man on first base.
Then, finally, the Jays sent everyone home to a late dinner. Kawasaki singled. Reyes dropped down a bunt and Rick Porcello threw the ball away, putting runners at the corners. The Tigers walked Melky Cabrera intentionally – Cabrera’s fifth walk of the day – to load the bases.
Bautista drove a ball off the right-field wall on a bounce to send Kawasaki home with the winning run and setting off a wild celebration on the field and in the dressing room afterward. He said it wouldn’t have been fun if they’d lost the longest game in franchise history.
“There’s not a lot of us left right now,” Jenkins said. “But I guess we’ll pick it up and go again tomorrow.”