Slick gloves, strong arms and speedy legs also key in Wild Card Game win
By Paul Hagen
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' fourth batter of the evening, Jose Bautista, led off the bottom of the second inning by slamming a home run to left that was so majestic that it looked as though it might scrape the girders of the open Rogers Centre roof.
The final Toronto hitter to step to the plate in the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday night, Edwin Encarnacion, hit the ball even harder. His no-doubt three-run shot in the bottom of the 11th landed in the second level in left, gave his team a 5-2 win over the Orioles and sent the Blue Jays on to face the Rangers in the AL Division Series beginning Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET on TBS in the United States and Sportsnet in Canada.
Those two long balls only reinforced the notion that the Blue Jays are the kind of club that wins by simply pounding its opponents into submission. And it's true that the starting lineup in this make-or-break game lined up six hitters in a row who had at least 20 homers in the regular season.
That line of thinking, though, lies somewhere between overly simplistic and just plain wrong.
The reality is that if not for Toronto's good pitching, terrific defense and heads-up baserunning, it could have been Baltimore celebrating and spraying champagne.
And that bodes well for the Blue Jays during the rest of the postseason, when one-dimensional teams can be vulnerable. Look at the Orioles. They led the big leagues in homers by a wide margin this season. But outside of one pitch to Mark Trumbo, Toronto's pitchers were able to keep Baltimore's hitters in the yard. And now the O's are going home for the offseason.
When Baltimore did have a chance to manufacture some runs, the Blue Jays came up with timely plays on defense.
The Orioles had a runner on second with one out in the fourth when third baseman Manny Machado ripped a line drive toward the gap in right-center that looked as though it would tie the game. But Kevin Pillar, whose nickname is Superman, raced toward the right-field line and made a diving catch. According to Statcast™, The ball landed 75 feet from where Pillar was positioned at the start of the play. Batted balls with that combination were converted into outs just 44 percent of the time (17 of 39) in 2016.
Trumbo followed with his homer. And while there's no way of knowing for sure that he would have gotten the same pitch from Marcus Stroman if the ball had gotten through, it's entirely possible that the catch saved a run.
"We're more than big bats," Pillar said. "We played well on defense. That's part of the strength of this team. It started heading into last season when we added Josh [Donaldson] and Russ Martin, and again at the Deadline when we picked up Troy [Tulowitzki]."
It turned out that both infielders on the left side also made big plays. Tulowitzki made a nifty play to throw out Jonathan Schoop with one out in the fifth, while Donaldson robbed Matt Wieters in the seventh.
"You know what? I think that's something this team has prided itself on all along," second baseman Devon Travis said. "Tulo, Donaldson, those are two guys who take a lot of pride in their defense. I just try to take after them, man. They're honestly two guys who are role models for me. I try to copy their approach to this game. And I think that's something this ballclub's been built around the entire year."
For all the talk about Toronto's potent bats, its rotation led the league in ERA (3.64), innings pitched (995 1/3) and WHIP (1.22). And that, obviously, is critically important in the postseason.
"A lot's been made of the home run ball, but we're starting to manufacture some runs," said left-hander J.A. Happ, a 20-game winner this season. "We're not shying away from the fact that we need our big guys to make those hits, but we've got good pitching and defense, and I think that prepares us to do well in the postseason."
Stroman pitched six innings Tuesday night. Then it was up to the bullpen, and five relievers combined to pitch five nearly perfect innings. The only Orioles hitter who reached base was Chris Davis, who walked in the seventh. And that was despite the fact that Roberto Osuna had to come out earlier than expected when his shoulder tightened. Manager John Gibbons said he doesn't believe it's a big deal.
In the 11th, the Blue Jays showed yet another dimension. Travis singled with one out against Ubaldo Jimenez and Donaldson followed with a base hit to left. When Nolan Reimold, who had just entered the game as a pinch-hitter, couldn't come up with the ball cleanly, Travis alertly moved up to third.
That turned out not to matter. But if Encarnacion hadn't barreled the ball up as squarely as he did, Travis would have been in position to score the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
The Blue Jays can hit. They're one of baseball's most aggressive teams at the plate. When they connect, the ball goes a long way and they're capable of scoring runs in bunches.
But sometimes that's not enough in the postseason. In winning the AL Wild Card Game, the Blue Jays showed that they have more weapons than they're given credit for. Which leaves them better-equipped to play deep into the postseason than some might have expected.
"We like our team a lot," Travis said. "That's the biggest thing. Every guy believes in the guy next to him. That's what baseball's about. That's what winning is about. And that's what we've got in this clubhouse."
Paul Hagen is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.