"Yes... that's it... keep eating.... little do you know, you're drawing closer to the POISON DONUT! Wuhahahah!"
"Wait, there is a poison one, right Smithers?"
Well this has been fun. First place? Multiple games over .500? Edwin Mantle? Can these guys keep it going?
I don't know. Do you? I sure hope they do, and I figure if you're reading this article the odds are that you hope so too. There is a lot of history in play here, in regards to the Blue Jays squandering postseason chances, and I decided such a thing would require its own separate article (coming Monday!). In the meantime a consolation prize, a Game of the Month.
Unlike April, which frankly had a lot of very forgettable games (it was either Toronto wins a boring one or the bullpen blows another. I probably could've done a great Game of April for a Pirates Blog); May was downright thrilling. It was a hard choice, and I had to reject my first contender (the great Darvish/Hutchison duel in Texas that started the winning streak) and any of those three wins in Fenway (because come on, those always feel good) but I'm very content with my decision. And that would be....
May 28th, Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto
Whether or not these 2014 Blue Jays are destined for postseason baseball, the one image of this season I'll likely remember above all else is from this game. But lets not get ahead of ourselves. It was a Wednesday night ballgame at the Rogers Sky Centre Dome, with the Blue Jays looking to complete a rare series sweep of the reeling Rays. Tampa Bay sent young (seriously, he looks fourteen) Chris Archer against a dude with an awesome first name (wink wink): Liam Hendriks.
The Blue Jays offence had, as Buck Martinez likes to say, their hitting shoes on early. Jose Reyes started the bottom of the first with a line drive single up the middle. One batter later, Bautista hit a high bloop that right-fielder Wil Myers just couldn't quite come in enough for. The ball bounced in front of his glove and rolled behind him. As there was only one out, Reyes had to hold just behind second base to make sure the ball wasn't caught. He managed to scamper into third anyhow easily, putting runners on the corners for Adam Lind. Old Beardo (vote Quimby!) drew a walk, loading the bases for that Edwin Encarnacion fella, who was pretty hot at the time apparently. And hot he continued to be, as he punched a hard 2-1 inside fastball into right-field, scoring Reyes easily. Myers' throw to the plate was on target and Molina made a terrific swipe tag to probably just nip a sliding Bautista, who barely touched home plate with his hand on the slide. The home plate umpire didn't think the tag made contact, fortunately for Toronto, and the lead was 2-0. Having watched the replay slowly, it looks like he was out, not to mention it seems 50/50 Bautista even touched the plate at all. Molina was alert to this fact and tagged Bautista again but the safe call had already been made. The Blue Jays likely caught a break with that one.
Archer picked up his game, striking out Juan Francisco and Brett Lawrie to strand a runner at third to finish the frame. 2-0 Toronto.
Tampa Bay struck back quickly. Matt Joyce hit a one out double that was inches from going over the centre-field wall, then the next batter Myers lofted an off-speed pitch into the Jays bullpen in left-field. Five pitches and the game was tied just like that. Hendriks finished the inning without any further troubles. 2-2.
While Archer began to settle in, Hendriks was looking rocky. After hitting Sean Rodriguez with a pitch, Hendriks needed a tremendous warning track catch from Anthony Gose to rob David DeJesus and prevent the Rays from grabbing the lead. It was a catch that most major league centrefielders make on the run, if they get it at all, while Gose was camped under it for a good second before the ball it his glove. Crazy enough, it wouldn't even be the best catch Gose made this inning. With two out James Loney launched a rocket four hundred-plus feet into the right-centre corner, a ball hit so well off the bat that a single run scoring would have felt lucky. Except Anthony Gose wasn't quite willing to concede that. He sprinted back, the wall coming upon him quickly, and leapt perfectly against the padded TD portion of the wall with his right glove hand high near the top of the fence, his blue #8 to home plate. He came down to the ground and the ball was in his glove, the inning was over. One of the best catches you'll ever see an outfielder make. Whatever other faults he has, the kid is a truly special defender.
The Gose Show continued in the top of the fourth when Desmond Jennings hit one hard and deep to the deepest part of centre. Anthony shuffled back quickly, set himself in the middle of the warning track just by the "400" sign and made the catch. I think Liam Hendriks probably owes him five steak dinners just from the first four innings of this game alone. Heck, there might even be a backlog of steak dinners owed from their time together in Buffalo. If this keeps up, Hendriks might be best served by purchasing his own steakhouse and letting Anthony eat there for free until the end of time. "Fly Ball Filets" they could call it! Anyway back to the game.
Chris Archer continued to roll, striking out Reyes to end a fourth inning threat while locating his good hard fastball in terrific spots. Hendriks also settled down as well, pitching a trouble-free fifth with some well placed groundballs. In the sixth however, his fly ball filet ways came back: Evan Longoria smacked a terrible hanging slider high and deep into left-field, another ball that seemed destined to give Tampa Bay the lead. Yet there was Melky Cabrera, pedaling back with his eyes on the ball the whole way. Like Gose before him, Melky met the wall and leapt onto it, reaching out his right glove hand and snatching the ball from the air. His cleats got caught on part of the wall padding, actually causing a rip, but Melky was fine and stayed in the game. There was one out, a sure double had been stolen away, and the steak dinners were piling up.
The infield was feeling left out of all the fun, so when the next batter, Loney, hit a hard grounder on the right side, Brett Lawrie (in shallow right-field, playing the shift) slid to his knees to retrieve the ball and throw it to first in one sweet, glorious motion. The throw was slightly off but Edwin reached out, his foot still on the bag, to snatch it with his glove before tumbling over. Another great play, another steak dinner. This Hendriks guy is gonna need a second job on the side, I'm not sure professional baseball pays enough for this.
Jump ahead to the top of the seventh, as John Gibbons rolled rookie reliever Rob Rasmussen right into the game. It was a lefty on lefty matchup Gibbons wanted with Matt Joyce up to bat, 0-13 (I believe) versus left-handed pitching all season. Naturally, Joyce blooped a double into the left-field corner to start the inning off. Out came Gibbons again, making the move to summon Dustin McGowan from the bullpen.
I can understand why they wanted to try McGowan as starter: the potential for goodness was surely there (his stuff is as good as it's ever been, despite all the injuries). But he's a different guy out of the bullpen: the attitude of throwing everything you've got into twenty pitches instead of eighty really seems to agree with him. He doesn't appear like he needs to conserve himself anymore, and he looks all the more aggressive and confident for it. He was confident and aggressive this day, as Joyce never even budged off second base for the rest of the inning. McGowan had kept the tie intact most impressively.
Tampa Bay brought in the eye-ripping-out-of-your-sockets-ly slow Joel Peralta for the bottom of the seventh, but after a pair of runners reached Joe Maddon summoned hard throwing lefty Jake McGee to face Adam Lind in a matchup too cruel to really go into detail over. Let's just say the tie continued past the seventh, and thanks to more excellent relief by McGee and McGowan, past the eighth.
The top of the ninth, still tied 2-2, found Aaron Loup on the mound for the Blue Birds. A two out walk to Wil Myers made us all extremely nervous, particularly with former Blue Jay Yunel Escobar coming up. It's one of those weird things in sports: how former players always seem to come up big in critical moments against their old teams. It would take a long intensive statistical study to prove if this is actually true (and who has time for that kinda thing) but it always feels true, and that is the feeling I'm sure I shared with many Blue Jay fans watching this at-bat. Instead of some soul-crushing, regret inducing base hit, Escobar hit a slow bouncer to Brett Lawrie, who made his second sensational play of the game (at a different position!) to field it and snap throw to first and catch Escobar out. To the bottom of the ninth, still tied 2-2.
The Rays summoned Juan Carlos Oviedo, whom I'm sure used to have a different, and easier to spell, name. Dioner Navarro led off the inning and wasted little time, lining Ovideo's first pitch into the outfield for a leadoff single. The obvious move (a pinch runner! Pinch runner! Pinch Runner! For the love of holey Jebus!) was made, bringing Kevin Pillar into the game as the winning run. Up came the number nine hitter, Anthony Gose, in a very obvious bunt situation.
As someone who plays in a competitive hardball league, I can say that bunting (or at least, doing it well) is not nearly as easy as it looks. And this is when nobody is expecting you to do it, when the third baseman is so far back you could shout mean things about his wife and all he'd understand is purple monkey dishwasher. To drop down a successful bunt when the defense is expecting it requires exceptional skill. This is partially why many pitchers at the plate are lousy at it, because the defense knows what's coming and it's hard to get the ball in that perfect spot where no fielder has a play on the lead runner. (This is also a problem for Billy Hamilton, as often he stubbornly tries to bunt his way aboard even when both corner infielders are practically level with the pitcher. You ain't that fast, kid.) Anyhow, Gose dropped down an absolute Rembrandt of a bunt to try and move Pillar to second, even with three fielders closing in on him, and here's where the fun really began.
On a drag bunt down the first base line, the fielder you want making the play is the catcher: all he has to do is run along the line, field the ball and make a good throw that doesn't hit the runner. It's a near impossible play for a first baseman (charge in, spin around and throw to first accurately) and real tough play for a pitcher, who has to charge in and twist himself to make the throw, again a throw that doesn't hit the runner. Gose made a terrific bunt but if the catcher (Solis) takes charge and is the one to make the throw, there's a good chance an out is made at first base. Instead, it was Oviedo who made the play, throwing the ball just low of Rodriguez covering first base. The ball skipped into foul territory and the Rays fielders had to chase it. Pillar recognized the errant throw immediately and his only thought was "score". He sprinted around second, took the wide turn at third and charged home. Myers the right-fielder made an excellent play to hustle to the ball, plant himself and unleash a great throw to the plate, a throw that (incredibly) arrived at the same time as Pillar. Knowing he needed to slide, Pillar leapt high and flat into home plate, airborne like Superman on his way to foil some petty bank robbery. The tag missed him, Pillar slid into home safely. The Blue Jays had won it, 3-2. Their ninth win in a row at the time.
And that is the image I will always have when I think of this 2014 season: that amazing dive by Pillar head first into home plate. This was a game of many heroes, and a good team needs many heroes on any given day to win. The 2014 Blue Jays have had a lot of them so far, but like any great team they're going to need a lot more.
The whole Gose versus Rasmus debate is very interesting to me because I find you really can't compare them, as they are such different players. Rasmus is a good defender in centerfield, Gose is a phenomenal one. Rasmus has excellent power, Gose not so much. Rasmus is an incredibly smart baserunner (best on the team, really), Gose an incredibly fast one. When Colby is ready to come back, the job should still be his because overall he is the better player right now, but I'd love for them to find a way to keep Gose around anyhow. His speed and defense are strong enough to help a major league team right now, not to mention his value as a late game pinch runner/base stealer (there are a lot of really slow guys on this team, don't forget). I'm also of the opinion that AAA isn't going to do Gose any more good, he's been there for the better part of three seasons and if he's ever going to learn to be a decent major league hitter he needs to face major league pitching. Plus he's just so damn exciting to watch.
The Nickname Game!
It occurs to me that this Blue Jays team is in serious need of some good nicknames. Sure we've got "Joey Bats" and "Delabeard" but if this team is serious about contention they're gonna need more monikers for their most popular players! Stay with me here. Anyhow, here are some ideas I've come up with: (but please feel free to make up some of your own!)
Anthony Gose (Go Go)
Edwin Encarnacion (Ed Wing)
Juan Francisco (Cousin Juan) -- Mrs. Eephus came up with this one
Drew Hutchison (The Duke, Sheriff, The Crow, or The Duke of Hazzard)
Casey Janssen (Rocker or Rock Star)
Colby Rasmus (Coty -- I admit, there's a weird story behind this one. I'm probably the only one who would call him this)
Marcus Stroman (Gum Bee or Super Stro Man)
Kevin Pillar (Johnny Tightlips or Deep Sea Diver)
Brett Lawrie (The Tattoo Twitch)
Dustin McGowan (Glower Power or just Glower)