Sunday September 13th, 2015

If the Blue Jays wind up winning the American League East this year, we will likely be able to point to Saturday, Sept. 12 as the day they levied the decisive blow against the Yankees. Welcoming the Blue Jays to the Bronx on Thursday while trailing by 1 1/2 games in the division, the Yankees had hopes of taking three of four to pull a half-game ahead of Toronto in the East. Instead, they lost the first three games of the series to fall 3 1/2 games back with 20 games left. New York managed to salvage the series and snap a five-game losing streak with a 5–0 win in the series finale on Sunday. Masahiro Tanaka allowed four hits over seven innings for the victory. 

Entering the series, the Yankees knew they had their work cut out for them with David Price taking the hill for the opener, which was pushed by rain from Thursday to Friday night. Toronto backed that up. The Jays set the tone for the series even before Price took the hill by scoring five runs of the Yankees rookie starter Luis Severino in the top of the first. Toronto wound up hitting six home runs in that game, winning 11–5. On Saturday, after the Yankees got out to an early lead on Toronto starter Marco Estrada in the opener of the doubleheader, the Jays again turned to the home run.

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In fact, the first seven scoring plays of that game were home runs, with the Yankees scoring four runs on shots from Brett Gardner, Chase Headley and Alex Rodriguez, and the Jays responding with two long balls from Jose Bautista as well as shots by Edwin Encarnacion (who reached base in his 41st and 42nd consecutive games) and Ben Revere. Yes, Ben Revere. There seemed to be a jet stream heading out to Yankee Stadium’s short porch in rightfield early Saturday afternoon. Not only did Revere hit just the fourth home run of his major league career, a wall-scraper, as you might imagine, but Bautista’s first home run of the game was his first opposite-field homer of the year (and just the sixth of his now 281 career home runs to go out to straight-away rightfield). Not to mention, Rodriguez’s home run also looked like a fly ball that just kept carrying.

Bautista’s second home run was a 427-foot shot to dead-center off Yankees relief ace Dellin Betances, who shook off a slider to throw a fastball, that gave the Blue Jays the lead in the top of the eighth. The Yankees then rallied in the bottom of the inning to tie things up, prompting Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons to use his closer not only in a tie game on the road, but in a high-leverage situation in the eighth inning in a tie game on the road. The gambit, one advanced analysis has long advocated for, worked. Brought in with men on the corners and one out, Roberto Osuna walked Rodriguez to load the bases but then stranded all three runners and worked a perfect ninth inning.

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Yankee manager Joe Girardi countered with his closer, using Andrew Miller for a pair of dominant innings in the ninth and 10th (six up, six down, four strikeouts). Yet, as much credit as Girardi might get for that move, he also pinch-ran for Rodriguez in the eighth for the sole purpose of trying to break up a double play, leaving Dustin Ackely to hit behind a Brian McCann single with two outs in the 10th when Rodriguez’s spot in the order came back around. Ackley grounded out to end the inning, after which Girardi, having used his three best relievers following just 5 1/3 innings out of Michael Pineda, turned to rookie right-hander Bryan Mitchell. He combined with fellow rookie Chasen Shreve to allow four runs in the 11th on a single, five walks (three by Shreve, who had only walked three men in a game once before this year, all three of them forcing home a run) and a hit batsman, effectively handing Toronto a 9–5 victory.

The second game started in a drizzle with the Yankees looking defeated from the first pitch. Yankee starter Ivan Nova pitched around a single and a walk in the first inning, but couldn’t get his curveball over the plate in the second and gave up six runs while throwing 41 pitches before Girardi removed him with two outs in the frame. That inning included another unlikely home run, a two-run shot from Cliff Pennington, who was forced into the game one after Troy Tulowitzki was injured in a collision in the field (more on that below). Pennington, who had hit just four other homers since the start of the 2013 season, proved to be one of the heroes on the day as he made a game-saving play behind Osuna for the final out of the eighth inning in the first game and, after failing to get down a bunt in the 11th inning of Game 1, took a 1–2 pitch off the back foot in what proved to be a pivotal at-bat.

For the Yankees, their most valuable performance came from Gardner, who after homering in the first game, hit a three-run shot in the fifth inning of Game Two that cut the Blue Jays’ lead in half. After the Jays blew the game back open with a four-run seventh keyed by a play at first base botched by Yankee reliever Chris Capuano on which two runs scored, Gardner hit another three-run shot in the eighth to make it 10–7. It was too little, too late, though as Toronto won the latter game by that final score to sweep the doubleheader.

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Given the 31 runs scored in the two games and the 10 home runs hit, Marcus Stroman’s return from the disabled list was largely overshadowed. Stroman pitched well for five innings before having his outing end after 78 pitches by a rain delay. He held the Yankees hitless for the first four innings, but did walk two batters, hit another, and balk a man to third base only to strand him there in the third. All four of the hits he allowed came in the fifth, and two of them were infield singles. The third, however, was Gardner’s second home run of the day. Stroman only struck out two batters, but did make a batter swing and miss five times. Overall, the outing was a success, but the jury remains out as to just how large of an impact Stroman might have down the stretch and into the playoffs.

The only sour note on the day for Toronto was the injury to Tulowitzki, who was rear-ended by centerfielder Kevin Pillar on a pop-out behind second base for the final out of the second inning in Game 1. Pillar claimed he was calling for the ball, but on the replay I can only see Tulowitzki calling for it. Either way, the two players raced to the exact same spot with Pillar running into Tulowitzki from behind as Tulo made the catch. Tulowitzki, who looked dazed, collapsed on his back after making the play and was attended to by the trainer while stretched out on the outfield grass. Toronto removed from the game.

The fragile shortstop was later diagnosed with a fractured scapula and muscle bruises in his upper back and is likely to miss a significant amount of time. Exactly how much remains to be seen. Given his injury history, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this be a season-ending injury for Tulowitzki, but the Jays are clearly holding out hope that he’ll return during the regular season. Tulowitzki is scheduled to discuss his injury with the media before Sunday’s series finale.

In the meantime, Pennington and Munenori Kawasaki will split time at second base with Ryan Goins moving over to shortstop. That’s a strong defensive double-play combination no matter the construction.

Even though Tulowitzki hadn’t been hitting much (just .232/.314/.368 since joining the Blue Jays), the loss of his bat, and the loss of the threat of his bat, will hurt Toronto going forward. This being the 2015 Blue Jays, Pennington emerged as a star over the remainder of Saturday’s action, but he has still hit .211/.296/.269 on the season, even with his Game 2 homer included, while Kawasaki, as delightful a personality as he is, has hit just .234/.314/.285 in his major league career.

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Still, given their expanded lead in the East, the Jays can likely absorb the loss of Tulowitzki for now. The Yankees, however, have to be troubled by how their pitching staff has performed in these games. Yes, the Jays have the best offense in baseball, but the Yankee rotation appears to be crumbling at the worst possible time. Ivan Nova, who returned from Tommy John surgery in late June, now has a 7.46 ERA over his last seven starts. Michael Pineda has made just one quality start since returning from a disabled list stint for a flexor strain in his right forearm, posting a 5.82 ERA over his last four turns. Luis Severino is a 21-year-old rookie who is now 24 innings past his previous career high. Nathan Eovaldi has been shut down for two weeks with inflammation in his pitching elbow. CC Sabathia is dealing with an arthritic right knee and looked no less finished in his return from the DL on Wednesday than he did before being shelved. Due to all of that, Adam Warren, the team’s best long man, was unavailable to pitch Saturday in part because the Yankees are considering putting him back in the rotation.

The Yankees desperately needed a win against Toronto behind their ace, Tanaka, on Sunday. Tanaka provided that and then some, but next weekend won’t get any easier. New York has to play three games against the still red-hot Mets in Citi Field, and after that have three more games against the Blue Jays in Toronto. After running that gauntlet, the Yankees will have just 11 games left in the season to undo whatever damage has been done. With its rotation in shambles, New York no longer looks like a lock for the postseason. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have a better chance of being the AL’s top seed than of blowing their lead in the division, even without Tulowitzki.

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