Toronto – The postseason is the biggest stage that Major League Baseball has to offer. It’s a time of high intensity, high pressure, and high stakes. Every little detail matters. In the course of a season, or even a game, a misplay or poor decision can go unnoticed. Lost in the greater context of events that a marathon season requires. In the postseason those decisions and plays are scrutinized to the Nth degree.
With those stakes comes a lot of pressure. Not just in the postseason but also those meaningful games down the stretch to get there. There’s not one player in the league that doesn’t want to be in that spotlight, living under the intensity of those must-win games.
Russell Martin has become no stranger to playing under the spotlight on baseball’s biggest stage. With the Blue Jays having clinched a playoff spot Sunday Martin will make his sixth straight postseason appearance and ninth overall in his 11-year career and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You battle your butt off all year to earn the right to play the most meaningful games possible,” Martin said last week. “Just the opportunity to play under those circumstances is all you need.
“Derek Jeter said it best ‘you have 162 games of practice before the real season starts.’ And that’s what it feels like. It’s like you earn your right to play under the big lights.”
“Derek Jeter said it best ‘you have 162 games of practice before the real season starts.’ And that’s what it feels like. It’s like you earn your right to play under the big lights.” – Russell Martin
While Martin has played nearly 50 games under those postseason lights for Michael Saunders Tuesday’s Wild Card game at the Rogers Centre versus the Baltimore Orioles will be his first. A sprinkler head in Spring Training last season spoiled his chances of embarking on Toronto’s historic run to the postseason in 2015, leaving the 29-year-old Canadian with bittersweet feelings and pinned to the Jays’ bench as the club’s biggest cheerleader.
After a healthy 2016 where he set career highs in at-bats, games played, and home runs, Saunders is looking forward to making up for last year’s freak accident and playing under those bright lights.
“(The playoffs), that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Saunders said. “I think I was more nervous than the guys were who were actually playing with me sitting on the bench and knowing all I could do was watch. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I know it’s what we’re all looking forward to. This year around, for me personally, actually being able to contribute and being on the field is a big deal for me.
“It’s why we train all off season, go through Spring Training, play five months every day is to try and play meaningful games in September.”
For Saunders this is only the second time he’s had the chance to experience firsthand impact games down the stretch. His old club, the Seattle Mariners, finished one game back of the Oakland Athletics for the second Wild Card in 2014. Through it all though the Mariners were never in the position the Jays were; controlling their destiny in their own hands with a mere handful of games left.
Despite having little experience in those type of games down the stretch Saunders refused to let the pressure or the high intensity of the game get to him, the game itself is the same after all.
“We don’t feel any pressure. This is why we play the game,” Saunders said before the Jays’ 5-1 win over the Orioles last Tuesday. “To get to this level I feel like you’ve got to learn to slow your heart beat down a little bit, and not get too amped up. So for us, we understand the importance of this series but this is just another game for us.”
Martin, who’s seen just about everything in the postseason except the World Series, echoes Saunders’ sentiment.
“I don’t make any conscious changes (this time of year),” Martin said. “I think everybody is prone to reacting to their environment. The environment becomes a little bit more excited, a little more amped up. So that might affect me a little bit. But other than that I feel like I just go out there, play my game, play hard, and play to win.
“I just go out there, play my game, play hard, and play to win.” – Russell Martin
“It’s easy to get excited. When you rush things you tend to make mistakes. I think the best thing you can do sometimes is just step back, gather your thoughts, get your breathing where it needs to be, lower your heart rate if you need to do that. But ultimately you just go out there and do things that you’ve been successful at and keep doing those things.”
While that may be easy for veteran players like Martin and Saunders, for Dalton Pompey, who’s spent the majority of his 59 Major League Baseball games in high intensity moments in September and October, it doesn’t come quite as easy for him. He hasn’t had the time to establish himself as a Major Leaguer, and in reality is experiencing baptism by fire. He just has to hope all that he’s learned in the minors will translate to success at the game’s highest level.
As a result, nerves play a role for the 23-year-old Mississauga, ON native and he feels the pressure of the moment.
“Yeah, I do (feel the pressure),” Pompey said. “Every time I run out there to run for something I get nervous. But once I’m on the base it feels like any other game to me.
“You still feel it. You still feel nerves throughout the whole season any game that you’re in. I mean, if you don’t have nerves I don’t think you should really be playing.”
“Growing up here I never really saw a winning team, so to be part of a winning team (in Toronto) for a change and actually be on the team is special to me, special to my family.” – Dalton Pompey
While the elder Canadian statesmen of the team refuses to call it pressure, they admit that they can become over-excited and know the reality of the moment and in turn have to consciously try and stay calm and focus on what’s in front of them. With over 2,100 games between them they’ve had the luxury of dealing with these situations head on for years and have found their own method of dealing with it and mentally blocking out any form of pressure.
Despite appearing in less than three percent of the regular season games Martin and Saunders has, Pompey has already experienced more postseason time than Saunders and gone equally as far as Martin ever has. A quirky stat that has Pompey out hitting Saunders in the postseason despite just one at-bat in the game’s brightest lights. Having accomplished the feat with the team he grew up cheering for makes that reality even more special.
“It’s obviously a great thing to be part of a playoff roster, a playoff race,” Pompey said. “Getting that experience is only going to be invaluable to me for the rest of my career. Obviously, I’d like to be here more than just September, but I’m grateful to be here altogether because some guys don’t get that opportunity.
“Growing up here I never really saw a winning team, so to be part of a winning team (in Toronto) for a change and actually be on the team is special to me, special to my family.”
Postseason experience and individual accomplishments aside, this trio, along with their teammates have one goal in mind. Martin admits that despite his personal regular season success baseball is a team sport, and to accomplish greater things one has to look beyond personal statistics.
“Luck is definitely (a factor), because it’s not just one person that’s going to change the whole season,” Martin said. “It takes a group of guys that share the same mindset, that work together to achieve one goal. I think that’s what you have on this team. Obviously, this team is made up of individuals that have to accomplish their own things individually, but I think that we’re all united with the fact that we all want to win, and you can sense it in this room.”
With a Wild Card date looming, they’ll continue to work towards that ultimate goal.