Wednesday September 23rd, 2015

The opening game of this week’s three-game showdown between the top two teams in the AL East, one of just two divisions still meaningfully in play in the final two weeks of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, was over almost as soon as it started, with Toronto’s powerful offense handing rental ace David Price a three-run lead after the first inning in an eventual 4–2 win over the Yankees. Tuesday’s follow-up couldn’t have been more different, a see-saw game that turned into an extra-inning nail-biter, churning up a playoff atmosphere in the Rogers Centre and ultimately yielding a 6–4 Yankees win that brought New York back within 2 1/2 games of the Blue Jays heading into the finale of the season series between the two teams Wednesday night.

Again the game started with some early runs, with the Yankees plating two off Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada in the top of the first, but this time the lead didn’t hold. The Blue Jays got those tallies back against New York’s rookie starter Luis Severino via a solo home run by Kevin Pillar in the bottom of the third and a leadoff walk to Josh Donaldson in the bottom of the fourth that came around to score on a two-out single by Justin Smoak.

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Things started to get tense in the top of the seventh, when Dustin Ackley, making his fourth straight start at second base, drew a one-out walk but was thrown out trying to go from first to third by rightfielder Jose Bautista on Didi Gregorius’s subsequent single. That play, which was made possible by a balletic catch and tag by Donaldson, who had to leap to catch the throw with his back to the runner then pirouette and make a near-blind tag on Ackley’s lead foot in a single motion, required a review for the umpires to get right, but they got it right.

Still, Gregorius went to second on the throw and, after Jays manager John Gibbons had Estrada intentionally walk Jacoby Ellsbury to have Aaron Loup face Brett Gardner, the Yankees loaded the bases on an infield single off Loup, setting up one of a series of thrilling two-out, bases-loaded confrontations. This one was between Liam Hendriks and Alex Rodriguez and lasted all of three pitches, with Rodriguez swinging over a 92-mph slider off the plate for strike three.

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An inning later, after a perfect frame by Yankees lefty Justin Wilson, Carlos Beltran connected for a solo home run off Hendriks to give the Yankees a 3–2 lead. In attempting to protect that lead in the bottom of the eighth, however, Dellin Betances ran into trouble against the heart of the Jays’ dangerous order. With two outs and a man on second via a single and a sacrifice, Betances found Toronto’s best hitters unwilling to swing at anything outside of the strike zone and thus walked Donaldson on four pitches and Bautista on five to load the bases for Edwin Encarnacion. Betances’s first two pitches to Encarnacion were balls as well—one fastball that skipped in front of the plate and another that sailed high—but with disaster afoot, Betances bore down and fired a pair of upper-90s heaters right down the pipe, getting strike one looking and beating Encarnacion with a 98-mph heater for strike two. Having reestablished his ability to throw strikes, he then got Encarnacion to swing over a curveball way outside for strike three, answering Hendriks’s Houdini act with one of his own.

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The Yankees made a bid for an insurance run in the top of the ninth following a leadoff walk to Chris Young, who had come in as a defensive replacement for Beltran after the veteran’s go-ahead home run, from Drew Hutchison, who was making the first relief appearance of his major-league career and just his third as a professional. Young went to third on a ground rule double by Gregorius, which bounced Hutchison in favor of Ryan Tepera, but when Young attempted to tag up on Ellsbury’s subsequent fly ball to right, Young was gunned out at home by Bautista, who reached catcher Dioner Navarro 267 feet away on the fly with his second assist of the game.

As a result, the lead Yankee closer Andrew Miller inherited in the bottom of the ninth was just one run, and after Miller struck out Smoak for the first out of that frame, Navarro put the first pitch he saw from Miller into the leftfield seats for a game-tying home run. After that, Miller worked into further trouble with assistance from his manager, who got duped by Gibbons into intentionally walking rookie pinch-hitter Matt Hague following a two-out double by Pillar. Girardi’s plan was to set up the force and have Miller face lefty Ben Revere, but Gibbons pinch-hit for Revere with Russell Martin, who worked a full-count walk that loaded the bases for Donaldson. For the third straight inning, the bases were loaded with two outs with a dangerous hitter at the plate. For the third straight inning, that hitter struck out, Donaldson falling behind 0–2 on a pair of sliders then swinging through a 96-mph fastball right down the middle on 1–2.

The top of the 10th started ominously for Toronto. Brian McCann bunted against the shift for a leadoff single and was pinch-run for by lightning-quick September call-up Rico Noel. With Noel running on a 1–0 pitch to fellow rookie Slade Heathcott (batting for Brendan Ryan, who came in as a defensive replacement for Ackley), Navarro reached out for Mark Lowe’s pitch and interfered with Heathcott’s swing, putting runners on first and second. That brought up yet another Yankee rookie, first baseman Greg Bird.

Lowe got ahead of Bird 0–2, but Bird laid off the next two pitches to work the count even before taking a changeup away over the rightfield wall for a game-breaking three-run homer. The home run was Bird’s 10th in his first 34 major-league games (a 48-homer pace over 162 games) and his third in as many days; it was the seventh of those 10 home runs to result in a lead change. It was also, quite obviously, the biggest home run of Bird’s young career. Bird is now hitting .256/.336/.562 on the season. The man he replaced, Mark Teixeira, who is out for the year due to a fracture in his shin, hit .255/.357/.548 and was on a 45-homer pace before getting hurt.

The Blue Jays got one of those runs back in the bottom of the 10th on an Encarnacion home run off Miller, who wound up vulturing the win from Wilson and throwing 42 pitches, likely rendering him unavailable in anything less than emergency extra-inning duty for Wednesday’s finale. The two home runs were one shy of Miller’s season total coming into the game and one shy of his season total in each of the previous three years as well.

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That just goes to show how dangerous the Blue Jays’ offense is, an alarming reminder for the Yankees given that their starting pitcher for Wednesday’s rubber match, their final chance to shave a game off their deficit in the division via a head-to-head win over the Jays, is not ace Masahiro Tanaka, but Ivan Nova. Nova had his last start skipped after giving up six runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays in Game 2 of the team’s doubleheader in the Bronx on Sept. 12 and has allowed 13 runs in 14 innings against Toronto on the season. However, Tanaka had to be scratched due to a hamstring strain, leaving the Yankees’ season in Nova’s hands.

A loss on Wednesday would put the Yankees 3 1/2 games back (three in the loss column) with just 11 games to play, but a win would put them just a game back in the loss column. That’s a huge swing with so few games remaining. If there’s any optimism to be had, beyond the resiliency the Yankee offense showed on Tuesday and the September struggles of the Toronto bullpen, it’s that the Yankees and Nova have fared better against the Blue Jays in Toronto than in New York this year. Of Nova’s three starts against the Jays, by far his best was his Aug. 8 start at the Rogers Centre (the site of his first major-league start in 2010), which saw Nova hold the Jays to three runs over seven innings in a 4–3 Yankee win. Meanwhile, the Yankees as a team are just 2–8 at home against the Jays, but with Tuesday night’s win have pulled even at 4–4 on the season in Toronto.

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Opposing Nova will be 24-year-old sophomore Marcus Stroman, who turned in five solid innings against Nova and the Yankees in his return from knee surgery on Sept. 12 and held the surging Red Sox to one run over seven innings in his follow-up, throwing 96 pitches. Stroman is thus properly stretched out for Wednesday’s game, but you can be sure that the managers, and teams, for that matter, will play Wednesday’s game like a playoff game.

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