You know, it wasn’t really supposed to end like this. With Josh Donaldson at bat, the tying run some 90 feet from home plate, game six of the American League Championship Series. But as a Thursday night slowly turned into early Friday morning, the Jays were pretty damn close to forcing a game seven. But then their best hitter this season struck out, leaving the tying run on third and the Royals moved on to the World Series.
Who’d have thought it would even get so far. It wasn’t long ago fans were asking for meaningful baseball in September! And to get so close to the World Series, especially after being so bad for so long. Well, fans got what they wanted and then some.
For the past two decades, the Jays have been bad. Sometimes they’ve been kind of okay, sometimes they start well but are derailed by injuries and sometimes they’re just really a heaping trash fire. But they hadn’t made the playoffs since 1993, baseball’s longest such streak. In that time they’ve had a ton of talent pass through the team and miss the playoffs: Vernon Wells, Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay all never played a postseason game as a Blue Jay.
And about this time a year ago, it was looking the same for Jose Bautista. He’d bounced around the majors before sticking with the Jays, where he quickly developed into one of their best hitters ever. His 54 home runs in 2010 is a Toronto single-season record; he’s second on the team all-time and hit more home runs in fewer games than players like Joe Carter, George Bell and Wells. But in his time as a Jay, Toronto had never sniffed the postseason.
Arguably, the closest they’d come was in 2014, when they led the division early in the season and made a late-season push, largely thanks to Bautista hitting .299/.430/.540 that September. But that year, like so many others, things fell apart and they faded. The usual happened: Colby Rasmus struck out a lot, Dustin McGowan struggled on the mound and Adam Lind couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers. Even if Bautista hit well, there wasn’t a lot else happening on this team.
In the offseason, Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos made a risky move, sending fan favourite Brett Lawrie to Oakland for Josh Donaldson, who could hit for power and hold down third base. In retrospect, it’s biggest move he’s made as general manager, replacing an temperamental, oft-injured player with one of the league’s best hitters. Almost just like that, the Jays had one of the best lineups in baseball.
As the season started and moved into July, Toronto was good but not great. They’d had a lengthy win streak but were fighting for a wild card spot. By August, Toronto added both David Price and Troy Tulowitzki and went on a tear, eventually taking the AL East lead and holding it through the rest of the season, winning their first pennant since 1993 and snapping that long streak. In so many words, it was rad. The playoffs were finally here.
And like that, baseball was popular again. People who’d never said they liked baseball were sporting Blue Jays gear. Even the local bakery had a Jays-themed cake. By the end of the ALCS, television ratings were actually higher in Canada than they were in the US.
The first round series against the Texas Rangers didn’t disappoint, although it came close. In game one, Toronto went down early, Donaldson hurt his head on a tough slide into second and even late-inning heroics from Bautista wasn’t enough. Game two went deep into extra innings and is best remembered for a close call at second in the 14th inning that went Texas’ way and an eventual 6-4 Texas win.
As the series shifted to Texas, it swung Toronto’s way: Marco Estrada pitched a gem in game three and the next day, RA Dickey and Price held Texas at bay to send the series back to Toronto for a game five. And what a game five! There was angst, with a bizarre moment where Texas scored after a tossed ball hit a bat. There was drama, as Bautista hit a three-run homer in the seventh. And there was lots and lots of noise. Honestly, after this win, everything seems like gravy.
The American League Championship Series started the same way, with Kansas City winning their first two games at home. Toronto won the third, 11-8, although it wasn’t really as close as the score suggests. But the wheels came off for game four, when Kansas City ran up the score, winning 14-2, as Toronto sent a position player to the mound for the first time in MLB history. They bounced back in a do-or-die game five, winning 7-1 and sending the series back to Kansas City. We didn’t know it then, but it’d be the last home game for Toronto this year.
Indeed, this fall the crowds in Toronto were unlike anything I can remember surrounding this team. Sure, I’ve been there when the stadium is more-or-less full, but never when it was so packed with energy. And, a few blocks up north, the city of Toronto set up “The Bird Nest,” a large screen in Nathan Phillips Square where people flocked and hung out, watching games on a giant screen, often late into the evening and even in frigid weather. Like the Raptors’ “Jurassic Park,” from a year or two ago, it was great vibes in the normally too-cool-for-school Toronto scene, where it’s cool to say the teams are bad and you always knew they’d choke anyway.
The relentless optimism and the cheering and shouting made their Jays playoff run not just fun, but almost a sense of community. How many times do people from Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver cheer for the same team at the same time? When was the last time a game like Game Five felt like such a national moment? The 2010 Olympics? It’d certainly been a while, particularly for a Toronto team.
Again, as it’d been all postseason long, my mind goes to Bautista. On a damp, rainy Thursday night in Kansas City where Toronto’s high-powered offense wasn’t clicking, Bautista was doing it all again, hitting two home runs and sending in every Toronto run. He was on fire throughout the postseason: .293/.408/.659, by far the best on the team.
Sure, there were other people who’d waited a long time for the playoffs on this team: Edwin Encarnacion and RA Dickey, for example. And I’m happy for them, too. But, man, Bautista was something else this season. Clutch hitting isn’t really a thing – it’s silly to think a player chooses to get a hit in big moments, since it implies they choose not to at other moments – but in many big moments, from game one of the division series to game six of the ALCS, Bautista was making the most of his chances.
It still feels like it should’ve been a storybook ending for Bautista, but then again, was he even supposed to get this far? Here’s hoping he’ll get another chance a year from now.