TORONTO – This is why they play the game.
A common message that echoed through both clubhouses prior to Tuesday’s Wild Card game between the Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles.
The pressure of the postseason, playing with everything on the line. Everything to lose but also everything to gain. No player would want it any other way.
“This is the only reason a lot of us play,” Blue Jays centerfielder Kevin Pillar said. “This wasn’t what we had in mind getting to the postseason, but… we got a chance to do something special and it starts today.”
And do something special they did.
In a game that had it all: plenty of great defensive plays, spectacular performances on the mound, some gigantic moon shots, a plethora of nervous moments, and a curious pitching decision; this game will be remembered for one swing of the bat.
Already among the all-time hitters in franchise history, the man they call Eddy entered Blue Jays playoff lore with one swing of the bat on Tuesday night in Toronto. Like Jose Bautista, Roberto Alomar, and Joe Carter before him, Edwin Encarnacion can now count his name among Toronto legends after depositing a massive shot into the second deck in left field at Rogers Centre to win the Wild Card game for the Jays, 5-2 over the Orioles.
The long-term weight and significance of Encarnacion’s game-winning home run in the 11th inning of the team’s first ever Wild Card game will be determined by the success of these 2016 Blue Jays, but in the short term there’s not a single moment in all of baseball that stands bigger right now.
The always subdued 10-year veteran called his home run “a very special moment and very special opportunity for me to get. Thank God I did the job, and it worked out for us pretty well.”
Encarnacion is not one to give much recognition or praise to his own performances, but his teammates have no filter for their appreciation for the man who’s called Toronto home over the last eight seasons.
“He’s one of the elite hitters,” manager John Gibbons said after the game. “He’s done that many times for us.”
“I can’t say enough (about him). We had the right guy up at the right time,” Pillar said. “He’s been the one guy throughout the whole year that’s been in the lineup, healthy, carried this team when guys were out. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. This guy should be in the MVP conversation.”
“He’s been the one guy throughout the whole year that’s been in the lineup, healthy, carried this team when guys were out. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does. This guy should be in the MVP conversation.” – Kevin Pillar
After a season that saw him finish third in Major League Baseball with 42 home runs, and second in the league with 127 RBIs, there’s no doubt he’ll garner some attention on the MVP ballot. But in reality, despite his terrific regular season, Tuesday’s swing is what people will remember most about his year barring further heroics. It may even end up his signature moment with this franchise.
This is why they play the game.
Every kid dreams of hitting that big home run, or make that perfect pitch when the stakes are highest. Encarnacion actually lived it. Even a Roberto Osuna, who was in the trainer’s room nursing an injury to the front of his right shoulder that he sustained in the 10th inning, couldn’t contain himself in that moment.
“I was so excited,” Osuna said. “I was jumping in the training room. I forgot that I have ice on my shoulder. George was like ‘Hey Osuna, stop jumping around.’ ”
Just five days ago no one could have ever envisioned this moment for Encarnacion. Following a disappointing 4-0 loss to these same Orioles last Thursday that put their playoff lives in jeopardy, Encarnacion left the Jays dugout worried he might have played his last game in a Blue Jays uniform at home. In that moment he took his time in the dugout, soaking up the moment and the gravity of the situation. When he finally left to the clubhouse he gave a subtle wave to the crowd on his way out.
Now, no matter how this season plays out or what the future holds, there will always be this moment. His own bat flip heard ‘round the world.
This is why they play the game.
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports