It is only two months into the season, there’s plenty of baseball yet to be played, and Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was not about to weigh in about any added importance surrounding a three-game set in early June against the Detroit Tigers.
“Look what they’ve done the last few years, the elite of the American League, so it would help us to have a good series, that’s for sure,” was about as far as the Toronto manager would go in hyping the pending confrontation.
Never mind that the series was pitting two old foes that, heading into Tuesday’s opening game, were leading their respective divisions – the Blue Jays in the American League East and the Tigers in the Central.
As far as Gibbons is concerned, any rivalry that once existed between the two cities has just about shrivelled up anyways. “When they’re not in your division and you don’t play them as often, I don’t think there’s one there,” Gibbons said before the game.
While the rivalry of old may be dead, the two teams still conspired to play a heck of a game, with the Blue Jays (35-24) prevailing 5-3 over the Tigers (31-23) in a game that was low on hitting but big on pitching.
The victory was the third in a row for the Blue Jays, while the loss for the Tigers was their third in as many games.
The game featured only five baserunners through the first eight innings as the starters for both teams, Toronto’s Drew Hutchison and Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez, pitched with remarkable precision.
The game turned in Toronto’s favour in the ninth when Anthony Gose, the Toronto speed merchant, drew a walk off Detroit reliever Joe Nathan.
Gose promptly stole second and then took third on a single to shallow left by Jose Reyes.
With one out, Jose Bautista stroked a seeing-eye grounder up the middle that just scooted under the glove of Detroit shortstop Andrew Romine. That scored Gose with the game’s first run.
Nathan then proceeded to load the bases before giving way to Ian Krol, who gave up a sacrifice fly to pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar that scored Jose Reyes from third.
Brett Lawrie then greeted Al Alburquerque, the third Detroit reliever of the inning, with a three-run home run blast to right field. Lawrie’s ninth of the season gave Toronto a 5-0 lead.
Steve Delabar entered the game in the ningth to try to finish it off for Toronto, but he just complicated matters by walking two batters and then allowing a three-run homer to J.D. Martinez.
It was now a save opportunity for closer Casey Janssen who came in to strike out Don Kelly for the final out.
The rivalry between the two cities, if you can still call it that, was once one of the most compelling in baseball if not all of professional sports. It took root during the 1980s when the Blue Jays, only hatched in 1977, finally became a team to be reckoned with and started vying for the playoffs
Both teams were stationed in the A.L. East then, and would become very familiar with one another, meeting up at least 12 times a year. The rivalry peaked during the memorable 1987 campaign, when the race for first place came down to the wire with the Blue Jays holding a slim 1 ½-game lead over Detroit heading into the final three games of the regular season.
All the games were played in Detroit at venerable Tiger Stadium, and the Tigers won each contest by one run to snatch the division title from the Canadian upstarts.
The rivalry was all but snuffed out in 1998 when the Tigers moved to the AL Central to accommodate expansion.
This year the teams will play only six times – three each on their home fields.
“Until this day, I still can’t believe they did that,” Pat Hentgen, a former star pitcher for the Blue Jays pitcher who was born in Detroit and still lives in the area.
Tuesday’s game, played before a crowd of 33,488, was an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel with little to choose between Hutchison and Sanchez.
Hutchison last started on May 26th against the Tampa Bay Rays, a 10-5 Blue Jays victory where he looked tenuous over five innings of work, surrendering five runs.
Over concerns that the 23-year-old was battling fatigue in his first season back after Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in his right elbow, Hutchison skipped his next scheduled start on Saturday to give him a couple of extra days of rest.
It was a prudent move: on Tuesday night, Hutchison pitched as well as he has all season, surrendering just three Tiger singles over seven innings of work. Hutchison’s fastball topped out at about 94 miles-an-hour, he mixed his speeds well and his command was superb with no walks.
Sanchez was even better, putting a leash on the AL’s most potent offence, allowed just two Toronto hits through seven innings of work, striking out five along the way.
And like Hutchison, Sanchez also did not walk a batter.