TORONTO – Weird stuff starting happening in the late innings again Monday night in Rogers Centre. The Texas Rangers must have been in town.
Try as they might, the Rangers couldn’t get away from talk of last October in their first appearance since the infamous “Bat Flip Game” that ended their season in the American League Division Series.
There’s no way to truly make up for the magnitude of that loss other than to move on, and the Rangers performed a sort of exorcism by surviving a taut, 2-1 thriller. It pushed them further atop the AL West at 15-11 while dropping the Toronto Blue Jays to a head-scratching 12-15.
This city just enjoyed one of the great sports weekends here in many years as the Leafs won the NHL Draft Lottery, aka the Auston Matthews Derby, on Saturday night and then the Raptors beat Indiana in Game Seven on Sunday to win an NBA playoff series for the first time since 2001. But the Blue Jays, the one team that was being counted on, are really scuffling.
The Rangers walked right in and immediately pushed back against recent history in the opener of a four-game series.
“I’m not afraid of ghosts,” Texas manager Jeff Banister insisted afterward. “Like I said in October, baseball has a cruel sense of humor sometimes. It will take you to the peak of the moutaintop and down to the depth of the valleys and bring you right back up again in a matter of three batters and three outs. You can have emotion but don’t play emotionally.”
The Rangers had lost a run in the seventh inning on a replay review when Delino DeShields was ruled to have been tagged out at second before Mitch Moreland scored on Rougned Odor’s fly ball. Adding to the weirdness was the fact the between-innings review KO’d the seventh-inning stretch. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played in the middle of the eighth. Never saw that before.
In the eighth, we had Texas reliever Sam Dyson vs. Toronto slugger Jose Bautista. Again.
This time, Dyson got Bautista to line out to right with two on. Last October, of course, Bautista drove a three-run homer off the facing of the second deck in left in the seventh off Dyson to give the Blue Jays their iconic 6-3 victory.
Dyson knew Bautista was coming up third in the inning Monday. He walked Michael Saunders leading off and gave up a Josh Donaldson single. The crowd of 25,323 was buzzing. After taunting him when the inning started, they were on their feet roaring.
“That’s what you’re here for. You’re here to compete,” Dyson said.
Dyson fell behind 2-1 before Bautista lined a scorcher the other way that right fielder Nomar Mazara snared. Edwin Encarnacion walked to load the bases before Mazara, who homered in the top of the inning for the game-winning run, threw out Saunders at home on Troy Tulowitzki’s shallow fly ball.
“My mindset at every point is trying to get the guy out. I don’t pitch around guys,” Dyson said. “When I walk them I’m a little upset. I just want to attack guys. If they beat me, they beat me.”
Was it good for Dyson to get the first Bautista matchup out of the way on the first night in town?
“It’s good for you guys to see me face him,” Dyson said. “Hey, I’d like to face him every time. It’s all about the competition. He’s going to win sometimes, I’m going to win sometimes. He hit the ball hard to right field and it went right to a guy. That’s part of the game. Sometimes it goes over the fence.”
Last October, the Blue Jays took advantage of three straight Texas errors in their key seventh and won the game on Bautista’s blast that resonated across Canada. The celebratory flip is now captured forever in pictures, on T-shirts and even on a giant banner on the outside of the dome.
It was an organic moment, rooted in the importance of the home run and the craziness of the inning, but the flip has sparked months of discussion. Old schoolers like Hall of Famer Goose Gossage ripped Bautista for it while Nationals superstar Bryce Harper said he loved it and has used it to frame his narrative that we need to let baseball have more personality.
Bautista wasn’t talking before the game, shooing away a Toronto writer looking to engage him on the topic. There’s an undercurrent of thought the Rangers have to retaliate at some point, be it here or in next week’s return engagement in Arlington. The .231 hitter didn’t speak after the game either.
He’s probably pondering his club’s issues, like its AL-worst 2-7 record in one-run games. And the 250 strikeouts, a figure eclipsed only by the offensively inept Astros and Padres.
The Jays were the talk of the town last October. The Raptors have that mantle now, with the pages of Monday’s newspapers filled with basketball coverage. Bautista was one of several Blue Jays to head off the plane from Tampa Sunday night right to the Air Canada Centre, arriving in time to see the second half of the Raptors’ victory. It’s a good time in this town, except at the ballpark.
October seems like a long time ago.