TORONTO — Where to start?
More or less by definition, a division series that goes to five games and then ends up tied in the seventh inning was anyone’s to take. As it turned out Wednesday night, this division series was Toronto’s, and after 21 years out of the postseason, the Blue Jays—with an assist from the umpires, the baseball gods, and the Rangers’ defense—packed enough action for several different Octobers into one deranged inning.
After a stunning, confusing umpire’s ruling that looked like it would be a decisive factor, the fateful frame included fans throwing trash onto the field (and onto fellow fans), a symphony of Rangers errors, a home run for the ages and the bat-flip of the decade, a benches-clearing argument, another benches-clearing argument over something even sillier, and finally a 6–3 Toronto win and a delirious celebration at the Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays are going to the Championship Series, after the kind of game that tempts you to believe in the baseball gods—and, if you’re a Rangers fan, curse them eternally.
What had been a good, tense pitching duel between Marcus Stroman and Cole Hamels went straight off the rails in the seventh, with the teams knotted at two. Texas, an underdog coming into the series, had played some imposing baseball to get this far, featuring heads-up base running, a dominant bullpen and some hits from kids like Rougned Odor and Hanser Alberto as well as veteran Adrian Beltre, overcoming a painful back injury to contribute to the cause. Toronto had struggled at home in Games 1 and 2 before finding its collective stroke in Texas and exploding for enough runs to bring the series home. All that past became prologue in the top of the inning, with Odor on third base and two outs, and reliever Aaron Sanchez in the game replacing Stroman. It was the most unusual umpire’s call in recent postseason memory, which is saying something so soon after Chase Utley’s slide into infamy.
“I’m still not certain what happened, what was going on, what the ruling is,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons later, though, soaked in beer and champagne and beaming, he was no longer too bothered by it.
“It’s never happened in my life before,” Martin would say later.
“I don’t know those rules,” said Jose Bautista. “I have no idea what the call is.”
“Never seen that before,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
In the top of the seventh inning, with a 1–2 count, Sanchez threw a ball to Shin-soo Choo. In throwing it back, catcher Russell Martin accidentally threw the ball off of Choo’s bat—while Choo was in the box, innocuously adjusting his elbow pad—thus making it, much to the surprise of the Blue Jays and even the umpires initially, a live ball. Odor, whose smart, hyper-aware base running had already been a boon to the Rangers in this series, saw this before it occurred to anyone else on the field, and scurried to the plate even as home plate umpire Dale Scott called time. Odor was at first sent back, but Texas manager Jeff Banister came out to argue. The run, the umpires ruled after consulting, counted. Then they called the league office to review the rules again. Yes, it counted. The Rangers were up 3–2.
That’s a dry description for a play that left viewers befuddled, the Blue Jays incredulous and fans in Toronto furious. So far as anyone could tell after the game, the umpires had actually handled the unusual situation very well, but you could watch many years’ worth of baseball without ever seeing that call made, and nobody in the ballpark—aside from Odor, at least—could quite believe it. “You didn’t want something like that to be the deciding run in a game of this magnitude, so that was kind of my beef,” said Gibbons. “But the umpire crew did a great job ... It’s a crazy play,” he said, sounding a familiar refrain. “I haven’t seen it before like that.” The Blue Jays decided to make their displeasure official; they would play the rest of the game under protest.
It was an ugly moment in the Rogers Centre, as fans’ excitement curdled and some started throwing things onto the field—garbage, full beers—in at least a few instances missing the field altogether and hitting the fans below them. To lose an elimination game on a call like that, and to have to the atmosphere devolve into that sort of blind lashing out, is the kind of thing that can scar a fanbase for quite a while.
But, of course, that was not the way things would end. In the bottom of the inning, the Jays mounted something it wouldn’t quite be fair to call a rally. It was almost more of an anti-rally on the Rangers’ part. The Blue Jays kept putting the ball in play, and one after another balls trickled out of the hands of the Rangers’ infielders. Martin reached on an error by Elvis Andrus; Kevin Pillar reached on a throwing error by first baseman Mitch Moreland; Ryan Goins reached on another Andrus miscue. After Ben Revere grounded into a force-out—pinch runner Dalton Pompey was out at the plate—Josh Donaldson hit a ball that, while not an error, Odor probably had a chance on; a catch there would have prevented the tying run from scoring.
“You’re thinking, I've got to do something,” said Martin in the clubhouse later, recounting the inning, glowing with champagne and relief. “I don’t know if I put pressure on [Andrus], or if he just misplayed it. Next play, another error, and then the next play, another error! You've got to take advantage of that. And then the next play, another miscue! Like, you have to win the game at that point.”
That brought Bautista to the plate. Of course it did. Bautista, the longest-tenured Blue Jay, was second (to the Royals’ Alex Rios) among all active players in games played without a postseason appearance—12 seasons, 1,403 games. Wednesday night, he came up with the game tied and two runners on. Reliever Sam Dyson, who had mostly stifled the Jays all series, threw him a 98-mph fastball inside: foul. He threw him another fastball—low and away, too low and too away, ball two. On the third fastball, Dyson came back inside, and this time Bautista had it timed perfectly.
The crowd in Toronto had tended to be overly optimistic on fly balls all series, but now everyone in the ballpark knew with certainty what had just happened, Bautista most of all. He finished his swing and stood still for what seemed like a long time, glaring at the ball he had just destroyed, apparently pondering: Should I hurl this bat away from me like it was personally responsible for all 1,403 of those postseason-less games? and then deciding, Yes, I should and doing just that. It will be the defining moment of certainly the series, and perhaps the season, for Toronto, the kind of clip you will still be able to identify in a fraction of a second many years down the road.
“He’s got a flair for the dramatic, you know,” said Gibbons.
“I can’t really remember what was going through my mind, to be quite honest,” said Bautista. “I still don’t even know how I did it.”
Dyson, however, objected, first to Edwin Encarnacion, who was on deck, and then to Bautista himself, and both benches cleared. “Jose needs to calm that down, just kind of respect the game a little more,” Dyson told The Washington Post after the game. “He’s a huge role model for the younger generation that’s coming up playing this game, and I mean he’s doing stuff that kids do in Wiffle ball games and backyard baseball. It shouldn’t be done.”
This, then, was the latest entry in baseball’s ongoing and exhausting “play the game the right way” debate. Bautista declined to comment after the game, but someone less magnanimous might have pointed out that what really shouldn’t be done is committing three errors in an inning to give up a 3–2 lead in an elimination game. One more incident followed, after Troy Tulowitzki popped up to end the inning and Dyson gave him a tap on the bottom as he walked by—a fairly harmless move on a normal night, but somehow enough on Wednesday to get everyone off the benches all over again, until it became clear that no one actually knew why they were angrily milling around, and everyone returned to their positions. It was an odd ending to an odd inning.
Though the Rangers threatened again, Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna kept them off the board. Andrus redeeming himself with a game-tying homer in the eighth is perhaps the only way this game could have been any crazier, and he looked like he was trying for it, but the night had evidently reached its limit for twists and turns. It was a heartbreaking loss for an overachieving Rangers team that had an upset nearly in its grasp with three innings to go. “I’m proud of how those guys played all year long, and how they showed up,” said Banister. “One game, one inning, a set of three will not define what these guys were capable of doing this year.” That much is true, nor should it. But it can hardly help but define the Blue Jays’ run to this point.
It was only the third time in Division Series history that a team came back from losing the first two games at home to win, following in the footsteps of the 2001 Yankees and the 2012 Giants. “You know what,” Gibbons had said before Game 5, “When you can hit the long ball, you never really feel out of a game.”
“I don’t know if it’s karma,” said Martin, remembering that seventh, “something that’s out of our control that helped us in that moment, but when Bautista had that swing, there was no doubt about it. He knew it, we knew it, the whole stadium knew it … a magical moment. I can’t describe it. I can still see it.” He laughed, surrounded by yelling and beer-spraying teammates, over thumping music, the sold-out crowd still lingering outside, not ready to leave yet. “It’s pure joy.” Martin popped a bottle of champagne and took a deep pull. “It tastes good.”
Presumably, the Jays would like to withdraw their protest. If they tried to play this one over again, who knows what might happen.