When they do the sizzle reel of Josh Donaldson’s career many years from now, it won’t be the home runs or the defence that gets pride of place. It’ll be the slides into home.
No player in the majors hits the plate with the same sort of kamikaze abandon – fully airborne, back arched, helmet tilted in front of face by the force of the takeoff. Donaldson hits home plate like he’s jumping out of a burning building.
On Sunday, he had the slide that may define his career in Toronto.
Tenth inning. Tie game. All the reliable members of the bullpen burned through. Donaldson stood on second with one out. Russell Martin hit what should have been an inning-ending double play. But the throw to first was off-target. The errant toss was made by – oh, this is too good – Rougned Odor.
Five months late, Toronto’s hate object was finally getting his own punch in the face.
Donaldson barrelled toward home in a frenzy. In the end, it wasn’t a close play. But that didn’t stop Donaldson from taking the full stretch. Safe.
Toronto won 7-6 in 10 innings, sweeping aside the best team in the American League, the Texas Rangers.
If you saw it live, Donaldson’s run will be etched in your mind every bit as much as the bat flip. Perhaps more. Because Jose Bautista’s swing didn’t need any help over the wall. But several million people standing in the comfort of their living rooms or the discomfort of a bar ran home with Donaldson. A whole country pushed him across the plate.
Toronto will face the winner of the Cleveland Indians/Boston Red Sox series beginning on Friday. Cleveland has the first of three opportunities to advance on Monday.
It’s hard to remember now that only a month ago this Blue Jays team was in the weightless stage of freefall.
They’d lost four in a row and their lead in the American League East. They sent up the emergency flare of teams in a crisis of self-belief – the players’ only meeting. Fingers were pointed; names were named. According to catcher Russell Martin, several anonymous someones were told to “stop complaining” and refocus on the needs of the collective.
Apparently, Soviet-style re-education actually works. A painful build into the postseason has now become a great leap forward.
Most hopefully of all, this time around doesn’t feel at all like the small breakthrough of a year ago. Instead, it seems like an arrival.
The first two performances of the ALDS were imperious, though a bit dry. Sunday’s was haggard and utterly compelling.
If it was lucky, it has to be said of this team – they have a way manufacturing their own luck.
At this same point last year, Toronto – the city as well as the team – experienced a great moment of catharsis. Game 5 against Texas was Toronto’s greatest sports moment in a quarter-century.
For the first time in a very long time, it felt like this was not a burough exclusively populated by losers and losers-in-training. Bautista freed Toronto’s inner winner, Alien-style, in a messy burst of emotion. That was how we played to ourselves.
But around the time Rogers Centre fans were littering the infield (and picking off babies) with a beer-can protest, America came to the jarring conclusion that Canadians aren’t the happy, ‘sorry, eh’-ing doormats they’d grown to love and ignore.
That upset some people. For instance, everyone else in baseball. In the course of just one game, the Jays’ reputation as a team full of show-offs and front-runners was widely endorsed.
Suddenly back in the continental glare on Tuesday, Toronto decided to expand the circle of ire by getting fans even more involved.
Until Donaldson’s replayable moment, that’s what everyone was going to remember about this playoff run in 10 years time – that somebody in Toronto once threw a beer at somebody else.
When it happened during the wild-card game, you thought to yourself, ‘They should catch that guy and put a little scare into him’. Twenty-four hours later, when it had turned into a paranoid local mash-up of J.F.K. and The Fugitive, you thought to yourself, ‘Perhaps we’ve lost our sense of proportion here’.
When you’ve got the mayor addressing an incident of sports-related public mischief like it’s a meteor hitting the CN Tower, you know this has all gotten a little overheated.
It won’t matter, really. Once tagged with this kind of reputation, it never leaves you. Reaching back to memories of the ‘Bronx is Burning’ -era, people will still insist that the Yankees and their fans – amongst the most staid and patrician in sports – are animals. Nobody cares that it isn’t true. It’s too good a story.
So from now on, Toronto fans are all maniacs. Not that anyone will care this morning or for a good long while to come.
Because the team has let the city off the hook by returning the focus to baseball. Not reactions to baseball, or Toronto’s relationship with baseball, or how baseball reflects our national character. That’s all very 2015.
This time it’s just about baseball.
The Blue Jays managed it by doing something associated with championship clubs – peaking at the right time.
The ALDS win in 2015 was a triumph of will. Since Toronto was never really in their ALCS series with Kansas City, it was an end in itself.
This time around it’s different. This was domination.
Over three games, the Blue Jays beat the Rangers in every facet of the game – they pitched better, they hit bigger, they fielded their positions better, they ran smarter. There was not one thing that Texas – by record, the best team in the American League – did anywhere close to as good as Toronto.
At the start of the season, the Jays’ Vegas odds to win the World Series were 10 to 1. They’d actually increased as they made the playoffs – 14-1. They’ve dropped like a stone since, now sitting at 7-2. Only the Cubs are currently better rated by the wagering classes.
Because while baseball is a game of various intersecting skillsets, Toronto has the two things that are nearly impossible to overcome in tandem – starting pitching and power throughout the line-up.
They hit eight home runs against Texas (against nine in that five-game series a year ago). Take out Sanchez’s blip and the starters’ ERA over four postseason contests is 1.88. If those two trends continue, they can’t be beaten.
Last year, the Jays proved the city isn’t sports cursed. This year, they get to try out something else that also feels new again – being the favourites, and the team other fans love to hate.Report Typo/Error
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