Because Twitter exists, there’s some chance that we’ll permanently misunderstand the Blue Jays’ win over the Orioles on Tuesday night. Because we can all document our feelings as Zach Britton remained unused through the ninth inning, then the 10th, then the 11th, and because we know everyone else was feeling it too, and because our worst suspicions about the whole thing seemed to be confirmed as the postgame press statements rolled in (no, Britton wasn’t hurt, yes, Buck Showalter was holding him back to protect an eventual, hypothetical lead), there’s a good chance this great baseball game will be forced to live in the too-short shadow of a single decision.
Let’s agree not to let that happen. Here are nine moments from the 2016 AL Wild Card Game that you should remember forever, even if you have to clear away some Britton/Showalter-related outrage to make room in your mental cupboard.
1. Chris Tillman breaks out his slider.
One of the joys of an intradivisional Wild Card Game is the intense familiarity between the teams, a familiarity that must (at times) be overcome if a player wants to succeed. Chris Tillman started Tuesday night, having made 24 previous starts against the Blue Jays, and 10 in the last two seasons. In those last two years, Tillman faced 219 Toronto batters, allowed 31 extra-base hits, walked 20, and struck out 31. This was not a good matchup for Tillman.
So he reached deep into his bag of tricks, relatively early. Normally, Tillman pitches very traditionally the first time through the opposing lineup, staying fastball-heavy, trying to establish that pitch. On Tuesday night, he threw a first-pitch slider to Josh Donaldson, the second batter he faced. Tillman threw 2,926 pitches during the regular season, but only 18 of them were sliders. He wouldn’t quite match that number Tuesday night, but he didn’t show it to the Jays once and then shelve it, either. Right off the bat, it was clear that these two teams would need to do things a bit differently than they had all season in order to win, and that they were ready to meet that challenge.
2. Jose Bautista does his thing.
For much of baseball history, the dead-pull hitter has been cast as an incomplete one, a troglodyte. Even Ted Williams drew criticism for his inability to consistently go the other way. That stigma is finally fading, though, and Bautista is arguably the biggest reason. It was he who, seven years ago last month, discovered that if he just started his swing a bit earlier and focused on getting it airborne to left field, he could launch home runs at a fairly dizzying rate. Bautista doesn’t hit an exceptional number of home runs, as a percentage of all the fly balls he hits to left field. He just hits an exceptional number of fly balls to left field.
That’s what he did on a 3-1 count against Tillman in the bottom of the second inning, too. He just hit a fly ball to left field. It was sky-high and hit hard, but not so hard as to make a home run inevitable. It just happened to be right down the left-field line, where the 358 feet it traveled were more than enough to clear the fence and break the scoreless tie.
3. Marcus Stroman gets pumped up.
The Blue Jays should have started Francisco Liriano on Tuesday night. Not doing so was a major mistake, a potentially fatal one. The Orioles had a 107 wRC+ this season against right-handed pitchers, and an 83 wRC+ against lefties. They’re a dangerous, explosive offense against right-handed pitchers. They’re one of the weakest offenses in baseball against left-handed ones. For some reason, John Gibbons chose to face that stronger version of his opponent. Stroman’s surname means “straw-dealer” in German, and he spun Gibbons’ straw into gold. He was brilliant.
He retired the first nine Orioles he faced, capping that run with back-to-back strikeouts to finish the third inning. When J.J. Hardy went fishing to end that third frame, Stroman cut loose with the first of several big demonstrations as he departed the mound. Stroman’s energetic personage filters right into his windup. He starts from the side-saddle orientation of a pitcher working from the stretch, then brings his front foot back (toward first base), then kicks it up (a bit faster than he brought it back), then strides downhill (a bit faster than he brought the leg up). It’s the same with his upper half. Everything builds rhythmically toward as smooth a release of huge kinetic energy as is possible. In the moment after Stroman fanned Hardy, one could feel the same smooth building happening within this game.
4. The Orioles have their moment.
One reason why Gibbons’ gamble on Stroman worked out was that the Orioles got themselves out far too often on Tuesday night. They were much too aggressive, and even in the rare instances when they were patient enough to work great hitters’ counts, they tended to come out of their shoes swinging at 3-1 cutters or changeups and ended up making weak contact.
In the top of the fourth, though, they managed to hold Stroman’s feet to the fire a bit. Adam Jones took an 0-2 pitch and got a better one on 1-2, pushing Baltimore’s first hit of the game into right field. Hyun-Soo Kim worked the count full before grounding slowly to first base, and Manny Machado hit a 3-1 pitch well into the gap in right-center field. If Kevin Pillar hadn’t made a brilliant diving catch, the complexion of the game might have been very different.
Yet, it didn’t seem that Pillar had saved much in the moment, because Mark Trumbo hit Stroman’s very next pitch out of the park down the left-field line. It was suddenly, violently 2-1 Orioles. Trumbo’s homer had been on a lower line, but went to just about the same spot as Bautista’s. Both were cheap dingers, but those count the same as the 440-foot moonshots, so the game was beginning to feel pretty whimsical. The fates were in control, not the players or the managers.
5. Buck Showalter saves the game.
By the time the fifth batter of the bottom of the fifth inning came up, however, luck seemed like less of an issue. The inning had already seen a ground-rule double by Michael Saunders that fell untouched by the slow-footed Kim in left field, then a double by Pillar that it seemed Michael Bourn ought to have caught down the right-field line (though Bourn made two dazzling running plays earlier on, so spare him too much scrutiny). A Saunders baserunning gaffe had prevented those consecutive two-baggers from netting the Jays a run, but then Ezequiel Carrera lined a game-tying single into center field.
It felt, for a moment, like the Orioles were now going to be handily dismissed by a superior team. Troy Tulowitzki had made a marvelous diving play in the top of the inning, helping Stroman carve through the Baltimore batting order again. The Blue Jays (fourth in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency this season, against the big, slow Orioles’ 20th) were turning balls in play into outs, and the Orioles weren’t. The vaunted top of the Toronto batting order was coming up again, with runners on the corners and the score already tied.
Then Showalter made the correct but unconventional move, and changed the game. He lifted Tillman (after 13 outs and exactly 18 batters faced) in favor of Mychal Givens. Givens was the perfect pitcher for the situation: right-handed (as all of the top six batters in the Blue Jays’ order are), and great at getting ground balls. On the first pitch to Devon Travis, Givens induced a double-play grounder (niftily converted by Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and Chris Davis) and got the Orioles off the hook. A potential game-breaking rally died in an instant. Givens would face six batters and get seven outs, fanning three. The middle innings belonged to him, and to Stroman, and then to the Blue Jays’ matchup bullpen arms (Brett Cecil and Joe Biagini), as the game marched toward a still-unclear conclusion.
6. Roberto Osuna adds injury and insult to injury.
The top of the ninth rolled around without either team having mounted a serious rally since Givens took the mound in the fifth. Machado, Trumbo, and Matt Wieters were due, though, so if the Orioles were going to flip the switch and find their offensive mojo again, the time had come.
Osuna didn’t care. The Blue Jays’ closer and relief ace is a bigger version of Stroman, really, both physically (he’s 6-foot-2, but shares Stroman’s compact frame, and uses a similarly compact, high-kicking, hard-driving delivery) and in terms of stuff. He got a weak comebacker from Machado and whiffed both Trumbo and Wieters, and those results tell only part of the story. He challenged those hitters and won easily. He poured in strikes, they swung, and the best any of them did was when Trumbo fouled a high fastball straight back. At that moment, it began to become clear: the Orioles just weren’t going to hit enough to win Tuesday night.
7. Brad Brach faces Toronto’s murderers’ row.
The first moment at which not using Zach Britton became a glaring choice by Showalter came in the bottom of the ninth, when he left Brach in to face the triad of Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Bautista. With the season hanging in the air, slicing over the spinning seams of every slider, many people wanted to see the Orioles go to their dominant closer to minimize the risk of disaster.
Here’s the thing: it’s not at all clear that using Britton would have been the better plan in that situation. Britton faced 194 right-handed batters this season. He surrendered six extra-base hits, walked 13, and struck out 58. Opposing right-handers had an aggregate OPS of .410 against him.
Brach faced 166 such batters. He surrendered seven extra-base hits, walked 12, and struck out 65. Opposing right-handed hitters had a .399 OPS against him.
Brach’s actual results against the three deadly Blue Jays were mixed Tuesday (Donaldson doubled, the Orioles intentionally walked Encarnacion, and Bautista struck out), but the choice wasn’t that radical. When Darren O’Day came in and got another crucial double play, whatever small damage had been done by Showalter’s withholding of Britton was undone.
8. The lefties take over in extras.
Osuna got an out to open the 10th inning, but couldn’t continue after that because of an injury. Finally, with his four top relievers used up, Gibbons called upon Francisco Liriano. The veteran left-hander then showed Gibbons what he’d missed by having Stroman start against the lefty-allergic Orioles. He faced five batters, and between good execution and some help from his old battery mate Russell Martin, Liriano got four ground balls and a strikeout. The Orioles did nothing against the Toronto bullpen, but almost less than nothing against Liriano.
Finally, though, in the top of the 11th, a lefty got up and began warming in the visitors’ bullpen. Relief spread throughout Baseball Twitter for a moment. Finally, Britton was coming in. Overdue, but—
Wait. Stop. It was Brian Duensing. No. Wait. What? Yes, that Brian Duensing. When he trotted in and took the mound to face Carrera leading off the bottom of the 11th, Duensing brought a playoff track record with him, and Ernie Johnson eagerly pointed that out to the viewers at home. Duensing pitched for the Twins in the ALDS in both 2009 and 2010. What Johnson didn’t mention is that Duensing had an 11.25 ERA in those two series, getting rocked by the Yankees for five runs in each of his two truncated starts. This is the guy Showalter brought in, after getting 5 â…” scoreless innings from his four primary middle relievers.
Improbably, Duensing struck out Carrera. It didn’t matter. By that point, it was clear. Zach Britton wasn’t coming into the game unless the Orioles got a lead. And the Orioles weren’t getting a lead.
9. The final dagger falls.
Ubaldo Jimenez had a great September. After returning from the bullpen to shore up a desperate rotation, he was good enough to help the Orioles get this far. He really was vital to that happening, and that should be acknowledged. That said, he had no business on the mound in the bottom of the 11th inning, facing the top of the Blue Jays’ order without his usual routine of preparation, and absent any margin for error whatsoever.
The deed still had to be done. Travis singled, and Donaldson singled, too, with Travis reaching third base on a misplay by left fielder Nolan Reimold. That brought up Encarnacion, who has hit more home runs over the last five years than all but one other player in MLB. Walking him might have made sense, if Jimenez weren’t unfortunately prone to walking people in the first place. As it was, the Orioles needed to pitch to Encarnacion with a base empty, and hope for the best.
Encarnacion crushed the very first pitch, puncturing the suspense of the moment with good, old-fashioned thunder. It was a wild moment, a wonderful one, and the crowd in Toronto went wild. Meanwhile. Baseball Twitter wondered why on earth Britton had never pitched.
It’s a fair question. Showalter ultimately put a vulnerable pitcher in to face the vicious foursome at the top of the Toronto batting order, when he had one more great option available to him. Still, it’s silly to talk about Showalter costing the team the game. It’s not Showalter’s fault that Orioles hitters were jumpy, missing hittable pitches, chasing unhittable ones. He got them as far as the 11th inning with brilliant bullpen management in the fifth inning, continuing all the way through to the ninth. Using Britton might have gotten them to the 12th inning, but there’s no evidence that the Orioles were on the verge of breaking through against Liriano, and since he had thrown only 17 pitches, it’s unlikely that he was about to be lifted.
The Blue Jays are a better team than the Orioles. They’re a more well-balanced offense and a much better defensive team. They have better starting pitching. John Gibbons doesn’t always push the right buttons, but as it turns out, no manager does. This game could have broken either way. Showalter made good moves and bad ones; so did Gibbons. In this game, talent (and a little luck) won the day, not any single strategic oversight.
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