THREE DAYS OF BASEBALL
A breathless finish to every game of a three-game series offers proof positive, as if it were needed, that baseball is a sport like no other
The Blue Jays and Tigers started a three-game series in Toronto on Friday August 8th, 2014 and over the next three days proceeded to underscore why the first eight innings of a game can be just an idle build-up to an emotional, action-packed conclusion. No other sport can have a lull in action interrupted so demonstrably by a sudden orgy of elation that sees players who might have been yawning in the dugout 15 minutes earlier now hopping around the field and spraying each other with water.
First of all, both teams kind of limped into this series playing sub-par baseball posting unimpressive records in the weeks prior. After more than four months of what can seem like an interminable season, it?s understandable why some players are just plain wrung out at this stage and running on vapors as the season slogs through the dog days of August. It is this stretch of the season that makes me wonder why, when banning steroids, the league office also chose to make amphetamines a banned substance. I mean, med students who need to remain alert pop greenies before a big exam so why shouldn?t baseball players ?
In Friday?s affair, the Blue Jays stormed ahead early to a 4-0 lead and held a 4-2 lead for six innings until the ninth. In came the Jays? closer Casey Janssen, who had largely struggled since the All-Star break. No one knew it yet, but things were about to get exciting. Janssen?s first pitch was laced for a double. After a groundout, Nick Castellanos also jumped on Janssen?s first pitch, crushing it to left field for a two-run homer. Tie game. If blowing the lead wasn?t bad enough for Janssen, things were about to get worse. Eugenio Suarez stepped up and drove the second pitch he saw over the center field wall to put the Tigers ahead.
A two-run lead turned into a one-run deficit in just seven pitches. SEVEN PITCHES ! The game turned so fast I wish I was wearing a neck brace. Having blown a lead in spectacular fashion, the Blue Jays, for their part, weren?t about to go down without a fight. They loaded the bases with two outs when Josh Thole flared a ball to left field that looked like it had chance to drop until Rajai Davis ran it down and, with a nice sliding catch, sealed the deal for the Tigs. Nice ending if you?re a Tigers? fan.
Having dropped a heartbreaker of a game in the series opener, the Blue Jays were about to face an even more daunting challenge: they would be facing the AL?s Cy Young winners from each of the past two seasons on Saturday and Sunday in Max Scherzer and David Price. Ouch. To be sure, this is not how most teams see themselves snapping out of a skid, but baseball has a way of proving over and over that just about anything is possible.
In Saturday?s contest, Scherzer was dominant giving up only one run over eight innings. Even though his pitch count was elevated at 106 ? having breezed through the eighth inning as he mowed down the Blue Jays on only eight pitches ? I fully expected he would come out for the ninth inning to try and go the distance. Instead, manager Brad Ausmus tapped Joe Nathan to save it for Scherzer. In another testament to baseball?s inherently dramatic nature, this mostly humdrum game, like the previous night?s, was about to take another turn, but this time in the Blue Jays? favor. Jose Reyes, representing the tying run, started things off in the ninth inning with a single and then stole second base.
After the Blue Jays were held at bay by Scherzer who cruised through eight innings mostly without facing any serious threats, the fans were now wide awake as the game was throbbing with tension and excitement, something barely imaginable a little over an hour earlier. These are the moments when baseball becomes electric as the fans are treated to another stirring finish. Dioner Navarro cashed in Reyes with a single to tie it and the Jays won it off Joba Chamberlain in the next inning ? the tenth ? when Nolan Reimold drove a double into the left-center field gap to plate the winning run. The Jays walked off winners.
If Friday and Saturday?s games didn?t provide enough drama, Sunday was the ultimate test of stamina and will power. Toronto fell behind early 5-0 to Price, who has owned the Jays for years as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. Things were not looking promising. The Tigers were well on their way to taking the rubber match of the series. But after Price was drilled in the leg in the sixth inning by a line drive off the bat of Danny Valencia, he suddenly appeared mortal. Navarro stepped in next. After Price was allowed to throw a couple of warm-up tosses as part of an injury timeout, his first actual pitch since taking Valencia?s liner off the thigh was deposited over the left-field wall by Navarro for a two-run shot. 5-2 Detroit. The Jays chased Price in the next inning, which is an exceedingly rare event, and rallied for two more runs. 5-4 Detroit.
Yet again, the stage was set for another nail-biting ninth inning. When Anthony Gose led off with a single, the place was abuzz ? if the fans weren?t on the edge of their seats, it?s only because they were now standing ? but the high hopes appeared dashed when he was called out trying to steal second on a bang-bang play as Colby Rasmus struck out swinging on the same pitch. Enter: John Gibbons. The skip rushed out of the dugout to call for a video review. The only reason the Blue Jays had, it seemed, to cling to any hope was if the original call was overturned; otherwise, the situation would be quite bleak: bases empty, two outs. The challenge worked. The Blue Jays now had a runner on second base with only one out and they looked like they were back in business, . . . that is, in the business of sending this game into extra innings if they could get the hit they so desperately needed. Down to their final out, after Munenori Kawasaki lined out, Reyes delivered another clutch single to score Gose and tie the game up. Wow !
After this euphoric turn of events, the home crowd was brought back down to earth when, with the bases loaded, Juan Francisco struck out swinging on a full count. Ooof. Baseball can really toy with your emotions that way.
Unlike Saturday?s game, Sunday?s would go longer than 10 innings. Way longer. Both teams had their chances ? many of them ? but there were plenty of opportunities squandered by both sides. As a photographer, I felt numbed by about the 12th inning. Or was it the 13th ? I can?t remember, but sitting in the sun for four hours will test your dedication to the sport of baseball no less than to the craft of photography. Although I didn?t know it at the time, the game was still young. It?s not that I needed an energy drink in my bloodstream; what I needed was water to hydrate. So I nagged the Blue Jays? clubhouse security guy for a small bottle. Okay, three bottles in all. Not all at once, of course. The game unfolded like a drama without a script. One hapless attempt to end it after another kept extending this game an inning at a time. Reimold would strike out five times in all. Francisco would leave eight runners stranded; Bautista nine. With no end in sight, the game trudged on. And on.
Gibbons would win another important challenge and just as things seemed to swing in the Jays? direction, the clutch hit proved elusive. Elusive until the 19th frame when, after six hours and 37 minutes, Bautista, with the sacks drunk and nobody out, drove a ball to the wall in right field to finally win what ended up the longest game in club history.
I?m not sure I?ve ever seen three consecutive games where leads were squandered in the ninth inning of every game, but that is exactly how this gem of a series played out. All told, it not only lived up to every fan?s expectations, but surpassed them by leaps and bounds. Patient fans could not have known what they were in for when Babe Ruth?s granddaughter threw out the first ceremonial pitch almost seven hours earlier, but they sure were rewarded for sticking around and getting what they came to see, even if it all took far longer to settle than planned. Of the more notable, if not odd, developments during this game, starting pitcher Marcus Stroman appeared as a pinch runner, Kawasaki played air guitar before the game, Ausmus was ejected, Friday?s starter R.A. Dickey was warming up in the bullpen in the 19th inning ready to come on in relief for a possible 20th inning, and Joba?s beard grew a lot longer.