The first thing that hits you about the arrival of playoff baseball is the smell.
It’s a tart and overwhelming aroma, with a strong hint of the vomitous – the stench produced by dozens of bottles of champagne being emptied all at once in a confined space.
For the second year running, the Toronto Blue Jays were able to play out the odd ritual of the clubhouse bacchanal enjoyed three weeks before the beginning of any championship series.
The Jays beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Sunday in a nervy encounter. Through most of seven innings, starter Aaron Sanchez had a no-hitter on the go. It ended abruptly with a Hanley Ramirez home run that was ruled six inches fair, and may have been six inches foul. It was almost impossible to tell.
This was the sort of game Toronto had grown used to losing, but the Jays pulled it out in the eighth with a series of small, unambitious manoeuvres – single, walk, double play, single, single. It isn’t what you think of as meaty Blue Jays baseball, but it worked.
“Maybe this is the best way to enter the playoffs,” manager John Gibbons said afterward. “Battle tested.”
Maybe, though no one would’ve battle planned it this way.
The win means Toronto will play a winner-takes-all wild-card game at home on Tuesday against the Baltimore Orioles. The victor moves on to play the Texas Rangers in a five-game American League Division Series beginning Thursday.
“We don’t do things easy,” Gibbons also said, and brightly. For the first time in a good while, he neither sounded nor looked exhausted. He was very wet, but otherwise unharmed.
That look of relief was repeated throughout the room. All the tension had faded.
As Gibbons spoke, his team cavorted soddenly in the cramped Red Sox visitors’ locker room. The smell – never pleasant in any room – was overpowering here. Alongside where Gibbons spoke, all the tatty furniture that crowds an already too-small room had been piled in a corner. Above, a few stray Toronto fans leaned over a balustrade and howled at Gibbons. He ignored them.
This is the only place in the majors where big-league ball – even its very biggest occasions – can seem so wonderfully bush league.
Back in the room, everyone was still at it. Even injured reliever Joaquin Benoit – a big man lurching around on crutches – was goggled up and ready to go. After a while, he retreated outside.
Injuring yourself running into a brawl is excusable. Reinjuring yourself a week later by taking a header on a champagne bottle might seem careless. This would not help explain reliever Matt Dermody enjoying festivities dressed only in a jock strap.
Aaron Sanchez came out soon thereafter. Like Gibbons, he was wet. Unlike Gibbons, he was wearing only a T-shirt. As the Fenway chill hit him, his teeth began to chatter. But he warmed while reflecting on a remarkable third season. He ends the year as the AL leader in ERA among qualified pitchers. He only continued with the team through the stretch run after intense debate about whether too much action as a starter would put him at serious risk for injury. In hindsight it looks like a simple choice, but it could have easily been a disaster.
Pitching in Toronto’s most important game of the season, Sanchez was as good as he has been all year. The only downbeat on the day was the thought that, had things gone more easily, this de facto ace would’ve been your wild-card starter.
The 24-year-old stood there, steaming very lightly, and reflected on a breakout year.
“Man, just all those crazy nights, two-a-days, coming off the flight at 10 p.m. and working out. Everything you put into it to have it shape up the way it did, man [a pause and a very purposeful glance upward]. Thank you.”
There are many stars who make up the present of this Blue Jays team, but the future now rides largely on Sanchez. He is the presumptive Stieb or Halladay of his generation.
His complement may be Troy Tulowitzki, the team’s most reliable anchor (if only because he is under contract for another five years). He had the winning hit.
As he rounded first, he indulged in what, by his standards, was a total freakout: He clapped his hands once and yelled. It was like watching your dad dance.
“Usually I’m straight-faced, all business. But, man, that was fun,” Tulowitzki said. He almost smiled as he said it. Almost.
An hour after the game had ended, a group of Jays pitchers came out onto the field at Fenway, hoping to take group photos on the mound.
A pair of them tentatively approached two members of the Red Sox grounds crew. The lumpy men in red windbreakers were lazily pounding the dirt on the mound – a nightly ritual. They eyed the enemy reconnoitre suspiciously as it approached.
The Jays gave them an elaborate “May I?” gesture. It was definitively rebuffed. The Jays were then shooed beyond the foul line to enjoy their moment.
A small lesson – you can win on this territory, but you don’t get to celebrate on it.
If there’s going to be any real party, they’ll have to save it for the Rogers Centre. They’ll get a chance on Tuesday. If that works out, a couple more in a week’s time. Then a couple more. And a couple more after that.
It’s a long way to go and a lot of champagne to waste. Given their recent form, injuries (to those in and out of the lineup) and statistical likelihood, it remains doubtful. But that’s why they bother playing the games. (Well, that and money.)
Unlike last year, there is little sense of expectation around this team. Over the past month, the Jays became one of those ‘Who knows?’ kind of teams. Who knows what they’ll do from night-to-night, or which version will show up?
Everyone will fear them, but few will expect much of them. Perhaps it’s a mentally freeing space.
“You get in, and see what the hell happens,” Gibbons said.
They’re finally in. So I suppose we’ll see.Report Typo/Error
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