Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
And just like that it’s over.
The Blue Jays suffered more hitting woes as they fell to Cleveland for a fourth time in five tries on Wednesday night, and will watch another American League team play in the World Series for a second straight season.
A pair of worst-case-Ontario double plays hurt. Edwin Encarnacion hit into one after a near-walk in the fourth, with Cleveland starter Ryan Merrit giving the first hint that it might have been possible he could have come unglued. Then Josh Donaldson did it in the sixth, on the first pitch from Andrew Miller. Dioner Navarro getting forced at second with Dalton Pompey on the bench in the bottom of the eighth was another dagger. But though John Gibbons may lose sleep over his decision to hold his pinch running specialist, who surely would have been safe if running in Navarro’s stead, to nitpick at the manager, or at anything to do with the pitching staff, or anything but the hitters’ inability to put their bats on the damn baseball would be unfair.
Miller punished the Jays all series long, but their failure to get results against far worse Cleveland pitchers — Merrit, Josh Tomlin, a bunch of relievers who hadn’t pitched for literally weeks — is what truly did them in.
If it had been the first time their bats had left them for maddeningly long stretches, maybe you could dismiss it with a shrug. Shit happens. Baseball happens. But for a lot of people that’s going to ring hollow, mostly for good reason. This offence wasn’t much different than the one that ran roughshod over the league in 2015, but it rarely looked the same, and in the end was beaten at its own game.
Cleveland clubbed too many home runs in this ALCS for the Jays’ slumping bats to compete with. Given the names the Blue Jays have in their lineup that should almost never be the case, yet here we are.
The reckoning will come swiftly for this version of the club, and a lot of thought will be put into what kind of team they want to be going forward. Encarnacion and Bautista will file for free agency after the World Series, along with Saunders, Navarro, and pitchers Cecil, Dickey, Benoit, Feldman, and Gavin Floyd. The pitching side likely won’t change much, but there are big questions on offence that go deeper than just whether to re-sign, or how to replace their sluggers.
There will be plenty of time to grapple with those, though. Too much, time, in fact. Damn dreary months. Now is much better served reflecting on what this season was. And maybe what this era of Blue Jays baseball was, as we head off into the great unknown.
It was fun.
Holy shit, it was fun.
It was monumentally frustrating, too. Maddening, infuriating, beating-your-head-against-a-brick-wall exasperating. But that’s what makes the best parts such explosions of unfettered joy.
There are two moments I’m sure I’ll remember about the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays season above any others. The first was in an LCBO line in Peterborough the afternoon after the Wild Card play-in victory over the Orioles, when the clerk asked if I’d seen the game the night before, and how instantly everyone around started beaming and chattering and reliving it. The second was from my seat at the very top of Section 524 when Josh Donaldson dove across the plate to beat Texas, when me and everybody in the section below went wild, jumping, high fiving friends, hugging strangers, putting into our actions the kinds of emotions we couldn’t vocalize.
Only something genuinely incredible can bring people together from different places and walks of life, putting their hearts on the line for the same thing. As trivial as sports really are, there is little else in the world that can produce moments like that.
And holy shit, it is exponentially better when it’s on a grand scale — when it’s not just a handful of diehards convincing themselves that the diamond and the green grass and the blue sky is enough. Don’t get me wrong, that can be great too. But when it’s the cab drivers with the game on, the downtown core blanketed with blue jerseys, the relatives and the non-sports coworkers talking to you about the game, the little bit of magic in the LCBO line? Incredible. Compared to 1994 to 2014? My god.
The season was so much more than those six games at the start of October, but after a September slide that nearly sent the Jays out of the playoffs what an impossible gift they felt like. Still do, in fact.
It didn’t end the way anybody wanted, it didn’t meet the lofty expectations last year’s success demanded, and it hurts like hell to have watched Cleveland celebrate on our field and to now be forced to contemplate the big questions that come next, but it was a great run. A great season. It really was. It really was.