October of Possibilities Looms as Blue Jays Reach Post-Season

BOSTON – They made it, just barely, but they’re in, and the month of struggles that nearly pushed the Toronto Blue Jays out of the post-season ended in a wild-card berth, not collapse, and an October of possibilities looms.

To get there, they made it hard, because everything this season for them has been hard, and technically, they clinched when the Detroit Tigers fell 1-0 to the Atlanta Braves, just as Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini was on the mound in the eighth inning, the tying run at second, trying to work out of yet another late-inning jam.

Biagini did just that, preserving the lead provided by the RBI single Troy Tulowitzki pushed into centre field in the top half of the eighth, and Roberto Osuna worked around a walk and a single in the ninth inning to secure a 2-1 victory.

After an 89-73 regular season, the ride continues.

“Maybe this is a better way to enter the playoffs,” said manager John Gibbons. “Battle-tested.”

They’ll find out Tuesday at Rogers Centre against the Baltimore Orioles in a win-or-go-home wild-card game, the exact matchup everyone expected a week ago. Then the Blue Jays dropped two of three to the Orioles in Toronto – with pending free agent Edwin Encarnacion taking a long look around before leaving the dugout – to set up a stressful final weekend.

Marcus Stroman is the likeliest candidate to start the wild-card game, especially given that Gibbons had Francisco Liriano warming in the bullpen during the eighth inning, with Chris Tillman expected to pitch for the Orioles.

“It feels great, that’s the opportunity I wanted, to go back to the city, to go back to Toronto and now we’ve got it,” said Encarnacion, who walked in the decisive eighth and scored on Tulowitzki’s single. “Sometimes when you think things are going to be a certain way this game makes a change. Now we’re just going to try to keep going and win the games in the playoffs.”

Underlining how unpredictable baseball can be, a dazzling Aaron Sanchez – bound for the bullpen Aug. 1 before that plan was reversed three days later – was untouchable for 6.2 innings but lost a no-hit bid on a disputed Hanley Ramirez solo shot with two out in the seventh. Sanchez immediately pointed foul, third-base umpire Quinn Wolcott signalled fair and replay wasn’t definitive either way.

“From my view it looked foul,” said Sanchez.

That erased the 1-0 lead provided by Devon Travis, the spark-plug second baseman who a year ago at this time was struggling to identify the problem in his left shoulder. His solo shot in the fifth came off David Price, the beloved ace from the 2015 Blue Jays playoff run Travis couldn’t take part in, no less.

Through that they remained unfazed, and they’re back in the post-season for a second straight October after a playoff drought that stretched back to 1993.

“Bottom line, since I came here I talked about winning,” Tulowitzki said. “In two years that’s two playoff appearances, so I’m happy about that.”

Still, issues remain, particularly for an offence that managed just 16 runs over the past six games, going 7-for-45 with runners in scoring position in the process. That left them to rely far too heavily on a staff that finished first in the American League with a 3.78 earned-run average – with the rotation’s mark of 3.64 nearly a half-run better than Cleveland’s 4.08. The offence finished fifth in the AL with 759 runs – 132 fewer than in 2015, when they simply pummelled opponents.

The late struggles at the plate were the primary reason for an 11-16 September that cost them the American League East and nearly ruined their season. It all made for one of the most memorable season finales ever for the Blue Jays, and that’s without even accounting for the lengthy and impressive pre-game ceremony honouring David Ortiz.

“At this point, just to have a ticket to the dance feels good,” said Russell Martin, back in the post-season for the ninth time in 11 seasons. “We’ve grinded all year. We’ve had guys banged up for a while. Obviously every team goes through that. But we showed a lot of guts this year. Now that the regular season’s over, it’s time to move on and keep playing like we played today, man. That’s all we need to do.”

The Blue Jays hadn’t gone into the last day of the season with their fate uncertain since 1990, when they needed both a win at Baltimore and a Red Sox loss to Chicago for a tie atop the AL East. Neither happened, Toronto falling 3-2 to the Orioles while Boston beat Chicago 3-1. More painfully, in 1987, the Blue Jays suffered a seventh straight one-run loss, this one 1-0 in Detroit as Frank Tanana outduelled Jimmy Key, and watched the Tigers celebrate clinching the AL East.

This time they were the ones popping bottles.

“I knew what it meant,” said Sanchez, who won the AL ERA title at 3.00 after allowing two hits and two walks with six strikeouts over seven dominant innings. “I knew what this feeling was last year and I wasn’t ready to go home. These guys, myself, we’ve worked too hard for it to come to an end.”

Despite his efforts, it was tooth and nail to get there as offence was again painfully hard to come by.

Jose Bautista was thrown out at the plate in the second trying to score on Tulowitzki’s drive off the Green Monster in left-centre. In warmer weather, the ball would surely have left, but in the dense moisture, Jackie Bradley Jr., fielded it off the wall, relayed to Xander Bogaerts, who made a perfect throw home to Sandy Leon. Bautista was beaten by a step.

More frustration came in the fourth when Encarnacion walked and Bautista hit a single to open the inning before Price cut through Martin, Tulowitzki and Melvin Upton Jr., to end the threat.

An inning later came a breakthrough, Travis catching just enough of a Price cutter to clear the monster three seats right of the foul pole. The trajectory made you think of Carlton Fisk willing the ball fair up the first-base line. Travis just put his head down and ran.

Then in the eighth, right after the Ramirez home run, Josh Donaldson singled, Encarnacion walked and Bautista hit into a 5-3 double play on the first pitch from Brad Ziegler. Martin followed with an infield single before Tulowitzki lofted a ball over the head of Dustin Pedroia for the decisive margin.

Holding it down was another challenge.

Pinch-hitter Chris Young punched a ball to right-field leading off the bottom of the eighth against Brett Cecil and he stole second uncontested as Andrew Benintendi went down looking. In came Biagini, who hadn’t thrown a pitch above double-A before this year, and promptly induced a chopper to third fielded brilliantly by Donaldson and relayed across the diamond for the second out. Biagini then went slider, change, fastball, slider to strike out Brock Holt and end the frame.

“We really grinded it out this year, nothing came easy for this team, we had to battle all the way through, and hopefully that makes us stronger for the playoffs this year,” said Donaldson. “We’ve earned everything that we’ve gotten so far, and we’re looking forward to what the post-season has in store, and hopefully we can make a run at this thing.”

Article Written by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.