"It was the best of times, it was the BLURST OF TIMES???"
I don't know what to think of this team anymore. Thus far they seem entirely impervious to momentum, the kind of team that can win five of six in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park (even if Boston is kinda awful) and then lose six of the next eight (three of those to a last place Houston squad). It's certainly frustrating to watch this kind of thing develop, especially with Baltimore playing so well and the Yankees somehow re-animating just the right zombies to win games. Throw in a red-hot Royals team and a Seattle squad that doesn't look like they'll give up a run the rest of the season and it's clear Toronto is in real tough. This Blue Jays team isn't going to waltz into the postseason anymore, like it seemed they would in May. They're going to have to start playing better baseball than the teams they now have to chase for the second wildcard. It's either that or hope for some luck, and that kind of luck hasn't been in this franchise's corner for multiple decades now. (I'm starting to wonder if Gillick borrowed money from the Baseball Gods in the 80s, invested most of it in the team, then split town knowing The Gods could come knocking soon. And they did, around lets say, March 1994.)
More on this stuff later. For now, here's your Game of The Month for July. Happier times? Yeah, probably. At least this game didn't have Rajai Davis putting us away with a sliding, game-ending catch. Ugh...
July 27th, Toronto Blue Jays at New York (Yankee Stadium)
The Bluebirds at this point were wrapping up their most recent series in the Bronx. After losing a million-billion straight games at Yankee Stadium (okay fine, sixteen) Toronto had finally snatched one the day before, mostly thanks to a three run Dan Johnson shot in the top of the ninth that turned out to be crucial insurance runs in that affair. Now, the Bluebirds had hopes of actually winning a series in the House That Jeter Built, and sent J.A. Happ out to the mound to try and do it. The Yankees countered with rookie zombie (I mean, pitcher) Shane Greene.
The top of the first inning began with Jose Reyes making a very nice slap bunt at Greene's second pitch of the game, The ball looped past Greene and a charging Headley, and by the time Jeter came in it was too late, Reyes had an infield hit. Melky Cabrera followed that by smacking a low Greene offering softly down the right field line, sending Reyes to third. Quickly, Toronto had two runners in scoring position with Jose Bautista coming up, nobody out. The Yankee hurler got Bautista to 2-2 but couldn't quite put him away, as Jose bounced one to first baseman Brian McCann. McCann juggled the ball briefly but recovered and jogged to first to record the out himself. Reyes charged home to make the score 1-0 Toronto, while Melky moved to third base with one out. Up next was Dioner Navarro, who chopped one off the mound. The Yankee infield was in, and the bounce off the mound went right into the glove of a lunging Derek Jeter. Jeter hopped to his feet, checked the runner at third, and threw out Navarro to complete a nice run saving play. Greene struck out Dan Johnson on an off speed pitch in the dirt, keeping the score 1-0. Happ took the hill in the bottom of the first, and despite a pair of deep fly balls (which in that park often turn into home runs, grumble grumble) pitched a quick 1-2-3 frame.
The top of the second inning was uneventful, as despite an infield hit for Munenori Kawasaki, Juan Francisco bounced a ground ball right into the very capable Yankee infield, resulting in an easy double play. The bottom of the inning started with Carlos Beltran, who used his five hour energy to lay off a Happ curveball inside to draw a leadoff walk. Brian McCann followed that with a pop fly into no man's land, where left-fielder Anthony Gose and Reyes converged. Fortunately this was a ball hit to Reyes' right, so he called off Gose and made the catch. Happ got another pair of deep fly balls (must've been a 2 for 1 deal at the Stadium that day) to end the inning. Still 1-0 Toronto.
So came the top of the third inning, which Greene cruised through so effectively that I'll say nothing more about it. The bottom of the third started with Zelous Wheeler hitting a jam shot single into right field (yep, I've never heard of him either). Happ then jammed Brendan Ryan, who also looped one into right field. Kawasaki chugged back, followed the ball as best he could and when it fell, he slid while making a basket catch, his back to home plate. The ball actually hit the palm of his glove and would've bounced out if Kawasaki hadn't cradled his glove into his chest, as though he were about to sing it a lullaby. During all of this the runner Wheeler had drifted well off first base, so once Muni had the ball, he threw it (while sliding into the grass again) into first base to double off the runner. A classic 4-3 double play. Happ struck out Brett Gardner with some high inside heat to finish off the third. Still 1-0 Toronto.
Jose Bautista led off the top of the fourth for the Blue Jays. On Greene's second pitch, Bautista lined one into the Yankees infield shift. Still, the ball was hit sharply enough that Brendan Ryan had to dive to snag it. With one out, Navarro hit a lazy fly ball to short left-field that Jeter ran down. This brought up Dan Johnson with two out, who drew a walk. Greene then walked Rasmus on four pitches, as suddenly it seemed his control had gone out for a coffee. He got two quick strikes on the next batter, Kawasaki, but Greene's control must've drank that coffee too fast. He threw a flat off speed pitch down over the plate, which Kawasaki punched into right-center field for a single. Wheeler in right-field got to it just as Johnson was rounding third. The throw was on target and beat Johnson by several feet. The catcher Cervelli made a lunge tag and nabbed Johnson for the third out. Yep, still 1-0 Toronto.
The bottom of the fourth began with a man carrying 3400+ hits to his name bidding for another: Jeter. The Yankee shortstop hit an inside Happ pitch right off the left-hander's glove, slightly slowing down the ball. Reyes charged in, scooped it up and fired to first, beating Jeter by a few steps. Fifteen years ago he maybe beats it out, maybe. A weak Ellsbury groundout and a Beltran foul out and Happ had pitched four scoreless. 1-0 Toronto.
Into the fifth, with Juan Francisco up to face Shane Greene. Greene made the rather dubious mistake of throwing Cousin Juan a fastball, and one over the plate at that. Francisco pounded it deep into the sunny Bronx afternoon, landing just along the foul pole in the second deck. 2-0 Toronto. Anthony Gose hit the very next pitch into left field for a single and it looked like the Blue Jays were in business again. On the very next pitch, Gose took off for second. The pitch was outside but broke low so Cervelli had to wait to catch it before leaping out of his crouch. The throw to second was no where near in time to get Go-Go. Then on a 2-0 count, Reyes tried to bunt (heaven knows why) but popped it up to the catcher. Gose advanced to third on a Melky groundout, but Bautista hit a deep fly ball into the glove of a running Brett Gardner. Toronto had only gotten one run, 2-0.
The bottom of the fifth inning began well for the Bluebirds. Happ struck out Brian McCann on three pitches, bringing up the switch hitter Chase Headley. On 1-1, Happ tried to sneak a fastball by Headley but the former Padre turned on it. He golfed it high into the left field corner and it wasn't coming back, landing just short of the second deck for a solo home run. 2-1 Toronto. A pitch later, Francisco Cervelli hit what looked like a lazy fly ball into right field. Cabrera held his ground at first but then kept drifting back until he was at the wall. Melky jumped up, but the ball was just an inch over his glove and into the seats for a New Stadium Special(TM). Just like that it was 2-2.
Happ would escape further damage by striking out Wheeler and getting a fly out from Ryan. Toronto came to bat in the top of the sixth with Dioner Navarro. Navarro hit a slow, slow tapper to Jeter that the shortstop bobbled for a moment, gave up on making a throw for an instant, realized it was Navarro running, and threw him out by a step. Dan Johnson was next and he laced a single down the left field line, bringing up Rasmus with a runner on. On 0-1, Greene left a fastball high and Rasmus smacked it, splitting Gardner and Ellsbury in the left-center field alley. The ball rolled to the wall and Gardner came up with it and threw to Ryan the cut off man. By this point though there was no hope of getting Johnson, who had no desire to be tagged out at home for the second time in three innings. He scored and the Blue Jays had the lead back, 3-2.
Yankee skipper Joe Girardi had seen enough of his zombie hurler Greene, so he went to the bullpen for southpaw David Huff against Kawasaki and Juan Francisco, both lefties. Neither Toronto batter could hit the ball into the infield dirt against Huff, and Rasmus was stranded at second base. 3-2 Toronto as we headed to the bottom of the sixth. Gardner led off and hit a comebacker that bounced off Happ's glove. The Happster recovered and quickly threw to first, a throw that made Bautista tumble off of the bag as he caught it, but he kept his foot on first just long enough to record the out. Next up was that Yankee shortstop, who Jetered a pitch into centerfield for a single. Happ was over 100 pitches at this point and fell into a ten pitch battle with Jacoby Ellsbury. Happ missed upstairs finally and Ellsbury had his walk, putting Jeter to second as the tying run. Happ was done, Brett Cecil was coming in to face Carlos Beltran. On Cecil's first pitch, Beltran split his bat in half and hit a weak grounder to Reyes at short. It was too soft to turn two so Reyes flipped it to Francisco to get the lead runner. Two out now for McCann. On 1-1, McCann hit a weak tapper into the shift. Reyes couldn't get it but Kawasaki did. Though he had to charge in from the outfield grass, Muni fired an on target, one hop throw to first that beat McCann. Yet Bautista couldn't hold on, having mispositioned his glove on the bounce, and the ball rolled away from his glove and ten feet up the line. Ellsbury scored easily and the game was tied again. Cecil froze Headley on a cutter to end the inning without further danger. 3-3.
Into the top of the seventh and the Toronto bats were at it again. Steve Tolleson pinch hit for Anthony Gose and laced a single into right field. Wheeler the right-fielder bobbled it upon playing it but Tolleson held at first, perhaps remembering Wheeler's good throw to nab Johnson at home earlier in the game. Jose Reyes was next to face David Huff and he blooped a weak ball just over the heads of the Yankee infield for another single. Two were on now with nobody out and Girardi was done messing around. He summoned his tall ace reliever, Dellin Betances, to face Melky Cabrera and hopefully squash the Toronto rally. Betances at this point in the season had allowed 27 hits in 61 innings, good for a .131 average against. That's... pretty good. Melky was up to the challenge, though, and after waiting out for a 3-1 count he bounced a slow grounder to second base, effectively a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners into scoring position with one out. With an open base, Jose Bautista was walked intentionally to bring up Dioner Navarro. Betances got almost exactly what he wanted, as Navarro hit a ground ball right at first-baseman McCann. McCann came home to get the force play for the second out, and what had started as a promising inning was in danger of being squandered. The bases were still loaded though for Dan Johnson, who worked Betances to a full count before hitting a weak fly ball into left-field that Gardner caught easily. Squandered it was, the game was still tied heading into the Yankee seventh.
John Gibbons made a very interesting move here, and one that had many Blue Jays fans screaming in alarm: Aaron Sanchez came on to pitch. Keep in mind that this was his second major league appearance, and for it to be in a tie game at Yankee Stadium, in a playoff race don't forget, well lots of us were expecting the worst. But Sanchez showed amazing poise, getting a trio of weak groundballs (all on 1-2 counts) from the Yankee hitters and retiring them in order. To end the seventh, it was still tied 3-3.
(As an aside, the beginning of this inning was a hilarious example of the many platoons the Blue Jays have used this year. Tolleson came in play third, Juan Francisco moved from third to first, Bautista moved from first to right field and Melky moved from right field to left field, where Gose had been. That's a nice around the horn substitution there.)
To the eighth! Betances stayed in to face Colby Rasmus, who waited out the tall Yankee hurler for a leadoff walk. Before even pitching to Kawasaki, Betances threw over to first to keep Rasmus close (probably a ploy to see if Muni would be bunting), but the throw missed everybody, bouncing into a spacious section of foul territory behind the right-field line. By the time the second-baseman Ryan retrieved it, Rasmus was cruising into third. Betances suddenly needed a strikeout, but with Kawasaki up that would prove to be difficult. He got to a 1-2 count but Muni punched a hanging breaking ball into left-field. Gardner was playing in but to make the catch he had to run back and once he did that he had no chance to get Rasmus tagging up. Colby scored without even having to slide and Toronto was on top again, 4-3. Betances and Adam Warren combined to strike out the next two Blue Jays (rather vengefully, I might add) but the damage was done. Toronto had a lead heading into the bottom of the eighth.
But these are the Yankees, and they have a pesky player named Brett Gardner in their employ. Gardner led off the frame against Sanchez by hitting a ground ball with eyes just between a diving Francisco and Jose Reyes. A genuine speedster was aboard as the tying run. Jeter was next and when you think of Derek Jeter in close games, your imagination will tend to drift towards big base hits or flashy defensive plays. Or in this case, a bunt right back to the pitcher. Weird to see, man. Weird. It was a good bunt though and advanced Gardner to second. Tying run at second base, one out, Ellsbury coming up, a twenty-one year old rookie on the mound. I was nervous, you were probably nervous too. Ellsbury hit a ball well into left field but not quite deep enough to escape Melky's glove. Now there were two out for Beltran. This time, Carlos didn't "need something extra" as he used a beautiful opposite field swing to loop a Sanchez fastball into left-field. Melky got to it quickly but there was no hope in all the delicious pizzas of New York City of getting Gardner at the plate. The Yankees had tied the game again. Sanchez was a bit rattled, getting to a 3-1 count on McCann before he helped out the kid by chasing a high fastball and weakly grounding out to first to end the inning. Tied 4-4.
It was the top of the ninth, and the rule seems to be when you're the home team in a close game to use your closer to pitch the top of that inning. A sound strategy, I suppose, especially compared with simply saving that guy exclusively for save situations (which is usually either ridiculous, or The Joe Borowski Approach). So Girardi summoned David Robertson, who has been really, really good this year. After getting a ground out from Reyes, Robertson served up an opposite field single to Melky Cabrera, bringing up Bautista. Jose hit one sharply down the line but Chase Headley snagged it, jumped to his feet and fired to second, getting Melky by barely a step for the force out. Now with two out, a runner at first and Navarro coming up, the chance of Toronto scoring didn't seem like a worthy wager.
If there's one thing you can say with absolute certainty about Jose Bautista, he's an incredibly aggressive player. He likes to force the action, particularly at the plate or on the basepaths (the many at-bats where he pops up a first pitch with runners on is a good example of this. He's swinging out of his shoes to try and make something happen). The basepaths in particular is an interesting facet of Bautista's game: he's not the smartest baserunner on the team (I still think it's Rasmus, though he's made a few blunders this year) but he's definitely the most aware baserunner. Bautista is terrific at taking an extra base if you're not paying attention to him, and this is exactly what he did here. On the first pitch to Navarro, Robertson didn't even bother glancing over to Jose at first base. Bautista, recognizing this immediately and knowing Robertson has a slow, deliberate leg kick, took off for second base. His jump was so good McCann didn't even offer a throw, merely looking down at the ball in a vain hope a swinging Navarro had somehow fouled it off. Robertson looked completely baffled, as though this guy stealing a base off of him was the last thing he'd expected. And honestly, it was more defensive indifference than a stolen base, as the infielders barely moved either. Bautista's steal was a brilliant baseball play in that it caught everybody completely by surprise (ourselves the fans included) and it gave the Blue Jays a crucial extra base at a pivotal moment in a key game. Suddenly the go-ahead run could be scored on a base hit.
Which is precisely what happened. On a 1-2 count, Robertson left a fastball up and Navarro golfed it into the centre-right field gap, scoring Bautista from second base and giving Toronto back the lead, 5-4.
Enter Casey Janssen for the bottom of the ninth. This was a moment of cautious optimism for Toronto fans, as Casey had served up an eventually meaningless two run home run to Beltran the previous afternoon. Another one of those would not be so inconsequential: it would win the game for the Yankees. But Janssen was sharp, getting a fly ball out of Headley and a swinging strikeout from Cervelli for the first two out. Ichiro was summoned to pinch hit, and hit a lazy pop fly down the left-field line. Melky charged in for it, slid for it and tumbled into the grass. He jumped up, the ball in his glove, and with a demonstrative fist pump the game was over. The team celebrated quickly but energetically on the field, feeling as though they had at last truly slain the Yankee Stadium dragon that had burned them so many times. FINAL: Toronto 5, New York (AL) 4.
And that's all for now. I warn you all: August's Game of The Month is probably going to be a long, long article...