This was the only chance I had to see the Toronto Blue Jays live in 2016 and it came during the third game of their three-game set in Seattle against the Mariners. The Jays won the first two games of this key American League Wild Card showdown and were hoping for the sweep in the afternoon finale. However, the reeling Mariners had their ace, Felix Hernandez on the hill. The good news was the Jays had their ace on the mound in 2011 C’s hurler Aaron Sanchez, who was coming back after a long layoff to reduce the number of innings on his right arm.
Blue Jays Nation turned out again in droves to invade Safeco Field and it’s a close race between who resents this development the most – Mariners fans or border guards. Getting to the ballpark was a real challenge. Getting over the border is the first challenge as it took about an hour to get into Washington State via the Pacific Border crossing. Deciding not to deal with downtown Seattle traffic, I parked on a side street in Everett, about 30 minutes outside Seattle, and took a Transit bus to near Safeco Field. Thankfully, I brought my iPad where I read Calico Joe by John Grisham to take my mind off how late I was going to be but traffic was absolutely brutal in Seattle. What should have been an hour-long ride according to the bus schedule turned out to be over 90 minutes and the final stop was several blocks away from Safeco Field. As a result, I missed the first couple of innings but I would still get my money’s worth in terms of innings in the end.
Jesus Sucre, who belted his first major league home run against the Blue Jays last season, would haunt Toronto again by getting a double off Sanchez in the third. Sweet Jesus then managed to labour his way home on a Norichika Aoki bloop single that 2011 C’s outfielder Kevin Pillar had trouble handling in center field. I was expecting a play at the plate but Sucre could’ve scored running backwards on stilts blindfolded. The Mariners would load the bases on walks by Seth Smith and Nelson Cruz but Sanchez limited the damage to just the one run by getting Kyle Seager to hit a comebacker to the mound.
Toronto looked like it was going to get that run back in the fourth when Josh Donaldson smacked a hustle double to right field. Edwin Encarnacion was brushed back by King Felix but Edwing got a measure of revenge with a sharp grounder that struck the left foot of the Mariners ace. Donaldson advanced to third on the play but he would go no further as Hernandez induced a pair of grounders to third off the bats of Jose Bautista and Russell Martin to end the threat.
Hernandez issued just two walks the rest of the way enroute to seven shutout innings. Steve Cishek pitched the eighth for the Mariners and issued a leadoff walk to former Mariner Justin Smoak. In came pinch-runner and 2012 C’s outfielder Dalton Pompey but he was thrown out stealing by catcher Mike Zunino, who came into the game to relieve the Sucre of Swat after being pinch-ran for by Shawn O’Malley after a 3-for-3 day at the plate. Devon Travis drew a two-out walk but M’s closer Edwin Diaz struck out Donaldson to end the frame.
Meantime, Sanchez pitched six innings and gave way to Joaquin Benoit, who worked a one-hit seventh. Brett Cecil started the eighth and was tasked with retiring two left-handed hitters in Ben Gamel and Robinson Cano. Cecil rung up Gamel but hit Cano with a 3-2 pitch. I was almost applauding Cecil for nailing Cano because the former Yankee seemed to take his sweet ass time getting back in the batter’s box in between pitches, acting like a damn diva. I was in an irritable mood because it was cold and windy despite a sunny afternoon in the Emerald City and this game looked to be slipping away from the Jays. Manager John Gibbons then decided to fire up the grill as Jason Grilli struck out Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager to bail out Cecil and send the game into the ninth.
Diaz struck out Encarnacion on a 3-2 pitch to start the ninth to put the Mariners two outs away from victory. With high-90s gas that has scraped 100 miles per hour and a high-80s slider, Diaz was overpowering the Jays until Bautista got a hold of a 98 MPH heater and deposited the 2-2 offering over the left field fence to tie the game at 1-1. I honestly thought the ball was foul so I was in disbelief as Joey Bats continued to trot around the bases for his 19th homer of the season to match his uniform number.
The Mariners had a chance to win it in the home half of the ninth when Joe Biagini gave up a single and stolen base to Leonys Martin but 2012 C’s pitcher Roberto Osuna got Dae-Ho Lee swinging to leave Martin, who stole third as well, 90 feet away from the pentagon.
The Jays tried to grab the lead in the 10th when former Mariner Michael Saunders doubled to left off Evan Scribner. After Ryan Goins advanced pinch-runner Melvin Upton Jr. to third with a bunt, Pillar lined out to short as Mike Freeman saved the day with a diving catch as part of a drawn-in infield. Travis then struck out to strand the artist formerly known as B.J. at third.
Osuna struck out the side to send the game into the 11th where the Jays were poised to break the tie when Donaldson singled and Encarnacion walked against Tom Wilhelmsen. However, Bautista struck out against Nick Vincent before Russell Martin hit into an inning-ending double play.
It was the Mariners turn to blow a chance to win it in the bottom half of the frame. Danny Barnes got Cruz to ground out in a righty-on-righty matchup before giving the ball to Aaron Loup, who proceeded to walk Seager and pinch-hitter Franklin Gutierrez. After Leonys Martin fouled out to first, Ryan Tepera took over for Loup and uncorked a wild pitch to move the two runners up 90 feet. After walking Zunino to load the bases, Tepera struck out Freeman to leave them loaded.
A Goins two-out single was wasted in the 12th and with the bullpen bullets spent, R.A. Dickey was called in to start the 12th. To say I am not a fan of the veteran knuckleballer would be an understatement. It was bad enough giving up Noah Syndergaard for him but his inconsistency over four seasons drove me insane and I’ll never forgive him for choking against the Royals in Game 4 of last year’s ALCS. Having said all that, the way his Blue Jay tenure ended was not his fault.
Dickey induced a ground ball to third but Donaldson threw it away, giving the gift of 180 feet to Guillermo Heredia. Donaldson would go on to butcher a bunted ball by Gamel, putting runners on the corners. It was at this point I decided to pack up my camera and head for the exits. Moments later, and out of my sight, Cano lifted a fly ball deep enough to score Heredia with the winning run, giving the Mariners a 2-1 win.
Despite his excellence with the glove, Pillar did show up with the leather or the stick in this one. Allowing Sucre to score from second on a single to center was bad and going 0-for-5, stranding four runners on base was worse. Also deserving of goat horns were Troy Tulowitzki, who also went 0-for-5, and Russell Martin, who rapped into that inning-ending double play to cap off an 0-for-4 day at the dish. The much-maligned Smoak was the player of the game with the stick with a base hit and two walks against his former club and Goins had a hit and sac bunt for the other perfect day at the plate for the Blue Jays.
Getting out of Seattle took forever as I endured another long bus ride to Everett after a lengthy wait. After finishing off Calico Joe and getting back to the car, traffic was reduced to one lane on I-5 for a stretch outside the border. Then it was about a 40 minute wait at the border before getting back to Canada.
A trip to Toronto in 2016 was not in the cards as the missus and I took a two-week vacation to Ireland and Scotland instead. Considering the way the Jays played for the first three weeks of September, I welcomed not having to be home for the remainder of the season. A long and boring layover at the Winnipeg Airport was only made tolerable when Marcus Stroman shut down the Yankees at the Dome on a Saturday afternoon. The only game I watched live in Ireland was the Jays’ collapse against Baltimore when Osuna gave up a two-run homer to Hyun Soo Kim in the ninth.
I really feared looking at the scores down the stretch from overseas but somehow they managed to get to the post-season. I was sound asleep when Edwing sunk the Orioles in the AL Wild Card Game but the missus greeted me with the good news when I woke up in the morning. By the time we arrived back into Canada, a lady saw my Blue Jays pullover and told me the Jays beat Texas to grab a 2-0 series lead in the ALDS. What a great way to end a vacation!
Wondering if there would still be Blue Jays baseball by the time we returned, they managed to complete the three-game sweep over the Rangers. Despite the karmic payback against Texas, the Jays reverted back to September form against Cleveland as the bats went missing again, much like that game in Seattle, a microcosm of the season.
When I look back on 2016, I just think it was a missed opportunity for the Jays. Still, I’m glad it was Cleveland, and not the Jays, who lost to the Cubs in the World Series in a soul-crushing fashion. Cleveland let the Cubs off the hook after losing Game 5. I feel bad for former Jays Yan Gomes and Rajai Davis, especially Davis after his heroic home run off Aroldis Chapman extended that epic Game 7.
Things could have ended better but they also could have ended much worse. Glad I’m not a Cleveland fan!