They stood as one during the long walk in from the bullpen.
They were on their feet when he stepped on the mound, and again when he exited the game – as well as a few times in between.
Afterward, Toronto Blue Jays hurler Mark Buehrle said the ovation when stepped onto the mound he once commanded as a member of the Chicago White Sox – among other highlights, he pitched the deciding game of the 2005 World Series – was so warm that he didn’t really know how he should acknowledge it.
His teammates hung back to let the crowd pay tribute to a man who pitched for them for a dozen years.
“The reception I got, I was thinking it might be kind of good, but what they did, coming off the field, every time I ran out I’d hear people cheering, walking off around the dugout, it was exceptional,” Buehrle said after the Jays’ 6-3 triumph over the Sox.
The little extra kick of adrenaline was evident from the first pitch – a legendarily soft-tosser, Buehrle brought that one over at 87 miles-per-hour.
“He was pumped, man,” said catcher Dioner Navarro, who was presumably among the teammates Buerhle said were teasing him about his increased velocity.
Pitching against his good pal John Danks in a game the Jays needed to win, Buehrle displayed something close to his best stuff for five and one-third innings.
He wouldn’t figure in the decision because of some inept bullpen work, and expressed frustration at not being able to go deeper into the game, but those are details; the win is the thing, especially for a team that’s scuffling along in the way the Jays are now.
When the 35-year-old was lifted in the bottom of the sixth – after scattering six hits on 72 pitches hits he had just given up a run-scoring single to Avisail Garcia – he was cheered lustily, spreading his arms and waving to acknowledge the crowd.
He also doffed his cap, after a fashion, as he ducked into the dugout – he would later say it felt strange to exit the field on the first base side, rather than on the home dugout side.
“I actually texted (Sox hitter Paul) Konerko and apologized and said ‘hey, I hope no one’s pissed on the team that I tipped my hat kind of walking off the field’. Because I don’t know what the rule is as far as being a visitor and tipping your hat. I didn’t want to piss anybody off on the other team, but at the same time the reaction I was getting from the crowd I thought it would be all right,” Buehrle said.
Dustin McGowan came on in relief with Garcia on first and Jose Abreu on second.
He promptly uncorked a wild pitch to advance the runners, and then gave up a sacrifice fly to Dayan Viciedo and an RBI single to Paul Konerko – the runs were charged to Buehrle, who said he received an apology from McGowan for not being able to hold the lead.
In the next inning, Chicago manager Robin Ventura replaced Danks with reliever Matt Lindstrom, and the Jays were quickly back on top.
Pinch-hitter Munenori Kawasaki slapped a ball up the middle that was booted by Sox shortsop Alexi Sanchez – he was nevertheless credited with a hit.
Jose Reyes smacked a double to right, and then Melky Cabrera cashed both runners with a double to right and advanced to third on centerfielder Jordan Danks’ error.
The next hitter, Jose Bautista, popped a single into left and the three-run lead was restored; relievers Brett Cecil, Aaron Sanchez (the rookie pitched one and two-thirds shutout innings), and Casey Janssen would take care of the rest.
“I thought Buehrle was good tonight . . . it’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to come out with a chance to win that game,” manager John Gibbons said afterward.
Whether a spark was ignited for a Jays hot streak is still an open question
The Jays have had a miserable time of it in August, going 3-10 before Saturday as they’ve watched the division leaders’ and wild card teams’ taillights fade in the distance.
The win arrested a four-game skid, and allowed the Jays to keep pace with the Detroit Tigers and narrowing the gap with Seattle, holder of the American League’s second wild card.
Though Buehrle has faltered noticeably since starting the season 10-1 and turned in some wobbly performances of late, the Sox found facing their former teammate heavy going.
In the first inning he faced three hitters and drew three ground ball outs on just 10 pitches, working with his trademark alacrity.
Danks had sent the Jays down in order to open the game, but ran into difficulty in the second.
First, Edwin Encarnacion chalked up his first hit – a sharply-hit single to left – since returning from the disabled list on Friday (he’d been suffering from a quadriceps problem).
Danny Valencia’s double off the wall in deep left moved him to third, Dioner Navarro’s sacrifice fly to centre field opened the scoring.
The next batter, Nolan Reimold, stroked a single to left, scoring Valencia.
The Jays added to their lead in the fifth, when Jose Reyes’ single scored Colby Rasmus, who had earlier doubled.
Buehrle’s return – which played out in front of his family, gathered in the stands, and a sizable, noisy contingent of Jays fans in the right-field bleachers – also coincided with Frank Thomas bobblehead night, the Class of 2014 Hall of Famer was on hand to say a few words beforehand.
The teams renew hostilities on Sunday for the series finale, the Jays’ Drew Hutchison is slated to face Chicago righty Scott Carroll.