It’s possible there have been more angst-inducing games in Toronto history. Not many, but it’s possible. And there have been better-executed ones.
But it is difficult to summon to mind a night on which the Toronto Blue Jays combined so much of both those superlatives as on Tuesday in their first-ever do-or-die wild-card game.
Proper fundamentals and then one particularly heavy bat were good enough to provide Toronto with an unforgettable 5-2 extra-inning walkoff win against the Baltimore Orioles.
The front-page splash came courtesy of Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run homer in the eleventh – no bat-flip required.
It’s been loud in this building a lot in recent months. This was the first time the noise hurt.
A lot of things people thought would go wrong after a full month of screw-ups went right instead.
They said Marcus Stroman wasn’t the best choice to start. He was.
They said the bullpen wouldn’t hold up. It did (though closer Roberto Osuna appeared to injure himself before he came out).
They said the defence was too wobbly. It wasn’t when it really mattered.
In that moment, you were drawn back to the pre-game and Jose Bautista holding court. Someone gave him the inevitable “What if this is it for you in Toronto?” question.
“Let’s not make it the last game,” Bautista shot back. “How about that?”
A couple of hours later, he’d hit a homer. But that was his bat-flip moment on Tuesday.
Now it’s on to Arlington, where the Jays will begin a best-of-five series against the Texas Rangers on Thursday afternoon.
“There’s got to be some kind of punishment for not winning the division,” manager John Gibbons said presciently of the wild card in the lead-up. “In a lot of other sports so many teams make it, it’s totally different set-up. Baseball’s always been unique.”
In this instance, uniquely painful. For Baltimore, and now for everyone else. The most hated team in baseball is now rolling into the big-boy portion of the post-season.
Objectively, the Jays don’t have the depth to beat the Texas Rangers. What they have is snarl.
If 2015 was the year of baseball’s renaissance in Toronto and across the country, 2016 was its ascendance.
All year long in foreign strongholds, even the sport’s cathedrals, Jays fans showed up in numbers and turned the place into a noisy, northern redoubt.
On the last weekend of the regular season, they occasionally assumed control at Fenway – “America’s Favourite Ballpark” – chanting and needling the home crowd. Unused to this sort of behaviour, Bostonians had no clue what to do in response. For the most part, they seemed impressed by the cheek.
That new attitude of entitlement extended from the team to its supporters and cycled back again. This was the first time in a very long time that you could describe a Toronto Blue Jays squad as imperious.
Man by man, they are the sort of team it is hard not to love if you support and easy to depise if you don’t.
Troy Tulowitzki – annoying.
Kevin Pillar – show-off.
Josh Donaldson – resented.
Bautista – loathed.
(That’s ESPN’s word. Before last night’s game, they led their website with an article headlined, “Why is Jose Bautista so loathed?”)
But in the town they represent, they’ve all become local touchstones in a way very few of the great players of ’92 and ’93 were. This team isn’t just competent. It has personality. An occasionally irritating, look-at-me personality, but that’s the kind people are drawn to. What’s the fun in being good for once, if you aren’t willing to rub it in a few faces?
This group – assembled almost entirely from the United States and Latin America - fights the city’s corner in a way no previous Blue Jay team had. They are a 23-man t-shirt slogan come to life: ‘Toronto vs. Everybody.”
Aside from the unfamiliar feel of winning a few, what makes this thrilling is watching how outsiders react to it.
For a long time, the cutting line was, ‘They have baseball up in Canada?’ in 2016, it became, ‘We don’t like the baseball they have up in Canada’.
As we got deep in the year, fewer and fewer visiting pros could pass up a chance to drop in a little shot at Toronto’s me-first attitude.
(We won’t have helped our cause much on Tuesday night, after a fan threw a can of beer at Orioles left-fielder Hyun Soo Kim as he settled under a fly ball.)
As the season ended, the Yankees had far more to say on the subject. The sort of thing they’d take for granted from, say, a grimy Red Sox outfit, they were pearl-clutchingly appalled to see coming from the friendly losers who live in the Rogers Centre.
So though they are Canada’s team, they don’t act particularly Canadian. That has evidently connected with people in a meaningful way. These Blue Jays perform the function of Toronto’s id.
They maintained that little ‘screw you’ edge all the way into ‘take-it-easy’ territory. They might’ve played the numbers and started Francisco Liriano against Baltimore. But as a late-season addition, he wasn’t yet of the Blue Jays.
Instead, they went with Stroman, their own man – now and for years to come. Before it was the right choice, it was a strong choice.
“I don’t really care what the outside world thinks,” Gibbons said. “Because they’re not in the position to have to make decisions. I tell you, it’s easy that way.”
Unlike so many of his charges, Gibbons has never displayed much growl. But here it finally is. He may be the last person in town to come over to Toronto’s hipster dark side.
Or maybe he’s psyching himself up for the Rangers. That could be the unfriendliest meeting since the Capulets last got together with the Montagues.
Tuesday was a rare burst of precision – all the parts of this Jays team finally fitting together as they should, practically from start-to-finish. What’s coming will be a war of attrition – doing more with less and trying to win ugly.
Given the history – both on Tuesday and a year ago – you have to kind of like Toronto’s odds.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: