Toronto's unsung hero grateful for opportunity to contribute
By Alykhan Ravjiani
TORONTO -- Anyone near Ezequiel Carrera during the Blue Jays' American League Division Series celebration likely saw the charismatic outfielder dancing alongside his teammates.
After all, Toronto had just won its sixth consecutive game in October, with Carrera -- known as Zeke to teammates and fans -- playing a major role in helping the Blue Jays advance to their second consecutive AL Championship Series (Game 1 on Friday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S.; Sportsnet and RDS in Canada) and third celebration in less than two weeks.
The 29-year-old journeyman wasn't expected to be a major contributor on this edition of the Blue Jays. But Carrera -- beloved in Toronto for his hard-nosed play and for being the official guardian of Edwin Encarnacion's fictional home run parrot -- has become a crucial glue guy on a ballclub with legitimate World Series aspirations.
"I'm just so blessed to be part of this team," Carrera said through an interpreter. "I don't think too much about the past, but it's unbelievable what we've been able to do here. To have the fans cheer my name, it feels great."
That past for Carrera involves a long and adventurous road to big league success, with the Venezuela native bouncing around five organizations in his first 10 professional seasons.
Included in that group is Cleveland, where Carrera made his Major League debut in 2011, and where the Blue Jays head next to square off against the Indians. Carrera spent parts of his first three seasons with the Tribe, and his career would eventually lead him to Toronto as a Minor League free agent prior to the 2015 season.
Less than two years later, Carrera has come a long way from his rookie season in Cleveland, earning manager John Gibbons' trust thanks to his sound outfield defense and his ability to handle the bat. In 110 games this season, Carrera posted a career-high six home runs, and he took over as an everyday player during Jose Bautista's two stints on the disabled list.
Through four postseason games -- two atop the order with Devon Travis battling a knee injury -- Carrera has hit .375, with an OPS of 1.007. He scorched his first career postseason home run off the Rangers' Yu Darvish in Game 2 of the ALDS, and he then scored two vital runs in Sunday's clincher.
"He's been one of our unsung heroes," Gibbons said. "You look at what he's been able to do when Jose's been out and he took over as an everyday guy with success. He can hit, bunt a little bit, steal a bag and you can trust him out there in the outfield. We really like what Zeke brings to the table."
On the defensive side, Carrera has brought stability to the outfield corners, where Toronto has struggled in 2016. According to Fangraphs, Carrera's seven defensive runs saved trail only human highlight reel Kevin Pillar in the Blue Jays' outfield, and he will likely see time at the corners in each of Toronto's games at Progressive Field.
Pillar, the leader of Toronto's outfield defensively, went as far as to credit Carrera for helping the team make the postseason, citing his defense in right field at a rain-dampened Fenway Park during the season's final weekend. While Pillar acknowledged Carrera doesn't say much to the media, his actions have helped the Blue Jays climb within four wins of their first World Series appearance since 1993.
"Zeke, man, what else can you really say? He's been unbelievable," Pillar said. "For most of the season, he was used sparingly. He was giving guys days off or when guys went down with injuries he stepped up. He's definitely earned his position on this team and he's earned his spot for the rest of the postseason. Whether he's leading off or at the bottom of the lineup, he's just the sparkplug we need.
"He gives me a lot of confidence when he's out there, because I know he can cover his area and some more. It allows me to cheat to some other areas. And you know, we're not in this position without him. Hopefully we get to see his celebration dance a couple more times."
Alykhan Ravjiani is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.