Everybody loves a Josh Donaldson walk-off. The anticipation as he rocks his front heel up and down, and the violent swing in which you have more faith than most things in your life. Then maybe you turn to your buddy, shake your head and smile in mock disbelief, and say something like “That’s just what he does.” You love a Josh Donaldson walk-off the way you love the firefighters who show up to save you from your burning house. In the back of your mind you know there’s a chance they won’t make it in time, but then you hear the wail of the siren and think to yourself, “Why was I ever worried?”
The same goes for Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, and the rest of baseball’s giants. The fact that we’ve come to expect these moments doesn’t take anything away from their feats, but it’s the heroics we don’t expect that truly blow our minds. Think David Freese in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series or Travis Ishikawa in Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS. When your house is on fire and all of a sudden it starts raining, the sense of salvation is that much sweeter.
So it’s time to give some credit to the Blue Jays role players; to give props those who put surprised us by putting out some big fires; to the men that work the trenches.
Here are some of the biggest moments from to Toronto’s unsung heroes.
April was a strange month for Justin Smoak. If you’ve got a good memory and were watching the Blue Jays closely, then you’ll remember that one of the bigger story lines for Smoak was the weird gap between his batting average and on-base percentage.
— Scott MacArthur (@ScottyMacThinks) April 19, 2016
The beginning of the year is small sample size season and the media were having a field day with Smoak’s odd stat line. The first baseman was batting .189/.375/.216 at the end of April, and as May rolled around fans were divided on whether he should be batting lead-off or down in Buffalo.
On May 3, mired in a 6-for-33 slump, Smoak laced a single to center in his first at-bat. However, he followed that up with a strikeout and a fly out in his next two trips. The Rangers pitchers blanked Toronto’s offence through eight, and handed the ball to closer Shawn Tolleson to preserve a 1-0 lead against the bottom of the Jays order. Smoak, Pillar, Martin. This was a Tolleson who had converted his last eight save opportunities, not the Tolleson you know today. You groaned.
Smoak quickly got himself in a 1-2 count, and then lifted a ball to left field with an easy swing.
Shock. Surprise. But game tied and extra innings. The swing was worth +0.438 WPA, the fifth-most clutch hit of the whole season by that measure. Joe Biagini made quick work of Texas, setting the stage for Smoak in the bottom of the 10th. You saw the easy swing on the game-tying dinger, but you still groaned again when he came to the dish with one out and Encarnacion on first. “Double play,” you thought.
Not quite a twin-killing. This was arguably the biggest Jays moment of the season to that point, and would send Smoak on a hot streak. The switch-hitting 1B would go on to slash .309/.375/.526 in the month of May while starting a season-high 24 games before things fell apart in the dog days of summer.
Not all heroes wear capes, but I’m betting Ezequiel Carrera has a cape emblazoned with the letters B-U-N-T in gold. By the end of the ALCS, there might not have been a more likely hero than Carrera, where he hit .303/.343/.515 over the postseason, but back in April he was a nobody. There’s no scientific way to pinpoint exactly when he went from zero to hero, but a pretty good date to start with is September 25.
Toronto held a one-run lead and an 83 percent win expectancy heading into the top of the ninth against the Yankees before Roberto Osuna came in and coughed up the lead on three singles and a sac-fly off the bat of former-Jay Ronald Torreyes. Osuna stopped the bleeding at 3-2 New York, but with Melvin Upton Upton, Kevin Pillar, and Carrera due up against Dellin Betances, things looked grim.
Even after Upton drew a gift of a walk to knock Betances out of the game, even after Pillar singled on a two-strike pitch from Tyler Clippard, you thought, “If Zeke can just turn the lineup over without messing things up, we’re in good shape.”
Sometimes bunts do work out well! All the headlines went to Encarnacion’s game winner, but Carrera’s bold bunt out-WPA’d Edwin’s eventual game-winning infield single +0.266 to +0.167. The Jays went 64-46 in games in which Carrera appeared, which adds up to a .719 winning percentage that barely edges the 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners. Really makes you think…
May 25th was the beginning of the end of Ryan Goins’ season. Devon Travis’ nagging shoulder injury had left second base open for Goins on Opening Day, but Travis was cleared to return to the field that day. With Troy Tulowitzki getting a day off, Goins would be starting at shortstop, but it was only a matter of time before he would be headed to Triple A.
Marco Estrada was dealing early, but allowed the Yankees to scrape together a run on a couple of singles and a wild pitch in the third. The Jays had gone 3-6 over their last nine games, including a devastating sweep at the hands of the Rays, and needed a big hit to turn things around before heading to Boston.
Smoak and Russell Martin led off the next inning with two outs on two pitches from Ivan Nova, but Pillar and Travis followed with a pair of two-out singles. Goins came up and patiently worked the count to 3-1, at which point you begged him silently, “Don’t take the bat off your shoulders, pretty please.”
Well, he did remove the bat from his shoulder, and good things happened. The go-ahead double was worth a game-high +0.249 WPA, but again the ink was spilled not on Goins’ heroics but on Russell Martin, who picked this day of all days to break out of a 124-AB homerless drought to open the season.
Quick. Who had the most clutch hit of the season according to WPA? Did you answer Melvin Upton Jr.? For some strange reason, Upton destroyed elite relievers this year, homering off Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, and haunting Kenley Jansen with a .667/.750/.2333 line (over 4 PA) and a two-run walk-off shot worth +0.695 WPA.
Melvin Upton Jr. doesn’t strike out on your schedule.
Ryan Pressly isn’t quite Kenley Jansen, but Upton came into August 27th with a .263 OBP in his first 27 games as a Blue Jay. With Toronto trailing the Twins by a run in the 8th, you saw Saunders, Pillar, and Upton coming up and thought, “Boy, it’s a shame the top of the order couldn’t get it done for us.” You probably know where this is going by now.
Upton’s little-league homer was the most exciting play of the season, capping the team’s second-largest comeback of the season. It wasn’t always pretty for Mr Upton, but he’ll always have that quick trip around the bases.
Traditional analysts love to talk about the importance of contributions from your role players. Maybe you’ve seen Gregg Zaun name “Get The Bottom of the Order Going” as a Key to the Game? Of course, it’s a classic meaningless sports platitude. The key to every game is “Get Everyone Going.” That’s obviously the ideal situation.
You can win games where Josh Donaldson hits three homers and the rest of the lineup goes hitless. You can lose those games just as easily. The beauty of baseball is just how disjointed it is. The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t winning a single game without Lebron James dropping at least 20. The New England Patriots aren’t making it to the Super Bowl without Tom Brady. Baseball claims to be a team sport, but really it’s nine guys with entirely separate fates. For all we know, Justin Smoak could come up with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series next season. And you’ll groan and tweet “Thanks for a great season, #BlueJays.”
But secretly your heart will be racing because you’ll be thinking, “What if?”
Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports