Lott: The Blue Jays boost their playoff chances with a nervous victory

Roberto Osuna
Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON – Much has been made in the media about the stone-cold demeanour of J.A. Happ. As always, he looked stoic on the mound Saturday night. But when he was done pitching and repaired to the seclusion of the clubhouse, Happ was yelling at the TV, like Blue Jays fans all over North America and beyond.
“I’m surprised you didn’t hear me,” he told reporters afterward. “I was letting out some (yells), that’s for sure.”
It was a game that frayed the nerves of fans on both sides, the score tied for most of the night, the stakes high for both teams, especially the Blue Jays. As usual, they did not hit. But the Red Sox came bearing gifts, the biggest arriving conveniently in the ninth inning.   
Like Happ, Kevin Pillar was nervous too, but only once. He already had driven in three runs on two singles before he came to bat in the ninth. This time, with a runner on first, he had a different mission: to drop down a sacrifice bunt against Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel.
“That was the only time I was really nervous,” Pillar said. “He’s not an easy guy to bunt off of. He throws hard. He’s a little bit erratic.”

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On the first pitch, a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, Pillar made his bunt short and sweet. Kimbrel had no choice but to accept the sacrifice and throw to first as pinch-runner Dalton Pompey rolled into second base.
One out. Ezequiel Carrera at the plate. In his first three at-bats, Carrera had struck out twice and bounced into a double play.
The score was 3-3.
* * *
On Saturday afternoon, Jays’ GM Ross Atkins and assistant GM Joe Sheehan met with manager John Gibbons to discuss an almost impenetrable set of playoff possibilities. Gibbons admitted he was perplexed, but reduced it all to a simple reckoning.
“They were talking about scenarios, a little bit confusing at the moment,” Gibbons said. “So it would probably be wise for us to win a couple of games. It would make things a little bit easier.” 
The Red Sox had far less at stake. Boston will play Cleveland in the division series, with home field to be determined. But the Jays – well, you know about the Jays. Staggering through September, their playoff flame reduced to flickering embers, the Jays score runs about as often as elephants reproduce.
So it was again on Saturday night. They managed only four hits, but Pillar delivered the two biggest after Boston pitchers set him up with a flurry of walks. His second single nudged Toronto into a 3-2 advantage in the sixth.
Happ carried that sliver of a lead into the seventh, then gave up a one-out hit and was replaced by the lately shaky Jason Grilli. He retired the next two batters, but yielded a double and walk to start the eighth.
Gibbons came ambling to the mound. He wanted six outs from his closer. That seemed like a tall order, but Gibbons trusted Roberto Osuna more than anybody else in his bedraggled bullpen. And Osuna had something to prove.
“I wanted to show the team that they can count on me any time,” he said.
Osuna got three outs in the eighth on two ground balls. The first left Brock Holt’s bat at 104 miles an hour and looked for a split second like it might undress Devon Travis. But Travis turned it into a double play.
Then, with a runner on third, Osuna’s mind meandered into the twilight zone at the worst possible moment. Just as he started his delivery, he decided to stop it. When he stepped off the rubber, he committed a balk that could not be ignored, even though umpires might tend to leniency in that situation.
“Russ (Martin) called for a cutter,” he said. “On my way up to my windup I changed my mind, but it was too late. Russ called for a cutter and I wanted to throw something else.”
Gibbons put up a feeble, perfunctory argument. He knew what Osuna had done and must have wondered what other new tricks his team could find to blow a lead. After he returned to the dugout, Osuna got the third out. 
The score was 3-3.
* * *
Meanwhile, in the press box, Toronto-based writers were web-watching. Baltimore, the wild-card leader at dawn, had already lost. The Tigers, seeking to overtake the Jays for the second wild-card spot, were playing in Atlanta. The score there stayed close, but entering the eighth, the Braves led 5-2.
Then Detroit loaded the bases with no outs and Miguel Cabrera coming up. Now Jays’ fans were nervous on two fronts. But improbably, Cabrera struck out and J.D. Martinez bounced into a double play. By the time the seventh inning ended in Boston, the Tigers had lost.
An inning earlier, dueling chants had began in earnest among the Fenway assembly. Emboldened by a leadoff walk to Martin, a gutsy gathering of blue-clad fans started to shout “Let’s go Blue Jays!” From the first-base side came a unified reply from the Red Sox partisans.
For about a minute, they traded testimonials, each side waiting for the other. The exchange had an air of unusual civility about it. It didn’t last long. Everybody was too nervous.
In the top of the ninth, Kimbrel entered to preserve the tie. Red Sox fans have been fretting over his recent proclivity for wildness, and he wasted no time extending the trend, walking Michael Saunders to open the inning. Pompey ran. Pillar bunted him to second. Then Kimbrel uncorked a wild pitch that allowed him to reach third.
Carrera saw six high-90s fastballs and a knuckle curve. On a 3-2 count, he reached out and poked ball four on the fly to left field. The throw was off-line. Pompey, the pinch-running specialist, slid home head-first and leaped up, bellowing.
Osuna retired the side in order in the ninth, leaving the Jays tied with Baltimore for the top wild-card spot. At worst, the Jays are guaranteed a 163rd game, a tiebreaker on Tuesday. At best – meaning if they win Sunday – they will host the wild-card game.
Other possibilities exist. The complex playoff picture remains a little confusing for Gibbons, among many others, no doubt. 
Someone asked him how he felt about Saturday’s win assuring Toronto of a game beyond Sunday.
“I’m not worried about that,” he told the media assembly. “We want to enjoy this one. They’ve been hard to come by, so we’ll let you guys worry about that.”
As the crowd filed out, chants of “Let’s go Blue Jays” echoed through the catacomb near the visitors’ clubhouse. Those fans were relieved, but the worrying was far from over.