The Toronto Blue Jays won the American League Wild Card game on Tuesday, defeating the Baltimore Orioles, 5-2, on a long walk-off home run from Edwin Encarnacion in the 11th inning.
And it happened in a way that we’ll second guess for months, if not years. The Orioles’ bullpen was a key team strength all season, and they were led by Zach Britton, who unquestionably had one of the greatest relief seasons of all-time. Yet, he didn’t appear in the game, not even in a tie game in extra innings.
Instead, Ubaldo Jimenez came in to face Edwin Encarnacion, who did this:
Mercy. Some key points of the AL Wild Card Game:
Buck Showalter didn’t use Zach Britton, a Cy Young candidate, to face the heart of the Blue Jays’ order in extra innings.
Zach Britton allowed four earned runs in 67 innings this season, and he’s getting legitimate Cy Young buzz because of it. But in the bottom of the 11th with one out and nobody on, Showalter went to Ubaldo Jimenez instead of Britton. Because of reasons. Manager reasons.
Jimenez averaged more than five earned runs for every nine innings he pitched this year. This is an advanced stat known as "Earned Run Average," and it suggested that if you want to prevent runs in a potential game-ending situation, you should probably look elsewhere. Such as the closer, who allowed four earned runs in 67 innings this year.
Jimenez allowed three earned runs in zero innings in this Wild Card Game. Which is one fewer than four earned runs, so I guess the joke is on us.
There could be more to the story. Britton could be hurt. He could have had troubles getting loose. The odds are, though, that he was a Closer On The Road, and you don’t put a Closer On The Road into the game unless you have a lead. Except that is, and always will be, supremely silly.
In a tie game on the road, the closer isn't trying to save a win. He's trying to save a chance that the other team will screw up in the later innings.
To paraphrase the rest of that argument: What happens in the top of the 12th inning? Does the Blue Jays pitcher walk four guys? Does he hit two more? Does he groove several fastballs? Does he allow seven runs, which allows the Orioles to coast to a win in the next half-inning, even if they have to pitch Chris Davis?
We’ll never know. And Showalter, an accomplished, veteran manager, will have an offseason to think about it.
Buck Showalter on Zack Britton: "He was fine."— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 5, 2016
Well, there goes the only possible working theory that made sense. Looks like it’s you and me, alcohol.
This was the kind of game the Blue Jays played all season
The Blue Jays either couldn’t afford to retain David Price, or they didn’t care to retain him. Either way, it was kind of the story of their offseason, as they spent a lot of money on short-term wonder J.A. Happ and trusted the pitchers on hand.
It worked. I don’t know how, either. The Blue Jays allowed the fewest runs in the AL, which was better than the bestest best-case scenario anyone could have concocted. Considering the Blue Jays walloped their way to the ALCS in 2015, this was a recipe for 100 wins, if not more.
Except like a Gift of the Magi morality tale, the Blue Jays had to give some of their walloping sticks to the baseball gods in exchange for the pitching. They weren’t bad, necessarily, ranking fifth in runs per game, with a 100 OPS+ that ranked them in the middle of the AL. But they were a collection of hitters who could be pitched to, at least occasionally, which wasn’t the case last year.
The key words there are "pitched to, at least occasionally," because if the pitching kept the game close, there was the looming threat that one of the sluggers would run into a pitch and hit it very, very far.
Edwin Encarnacion ran into a pitch and hit it very, very far.
While most of the focus will be on Showalter and Britton, as well as Jimenez being within five miles of the mound in a tied extra-inning game, Encarnacion was looking for a fastball down the middle, and he was ready for it when it arrived. The Blue Jays were an imperfect mishmash of pitching and dingers this year. But it took one Wild Card Game to remind you of just how scary they can be.
The Division Series is now the Rangers vs. Blue Jays, you know
It would have been a good matchup either way. But this ... this has something that everyone can argue about. Can’t wait.