Baseball got it right with the wildcard game. The 11-inning 5–2 walk-off Toronto win over Baltimore was one of those iconic games that validated baseball’s decision to expand the playoffs to two wildcard teams.
Tuesday’s American League wildcard game is also one that will be remembered fondly in Blue Jays lore. It was the first Toronto walk-off playoffs win since Joe Carter’s World Series-winning homer in 1993.
Pitching, hitting, defense, players stepping up in the clutch, drama, extra innings, heart palpitations…the AL wildcard game had it all.
In a way, it was a typical Blue Jays win. The team’s strength this year has been its starting pitching and winning games with the long ball—and not by just one run. Sometimes a manager’s gut feel wins out.
Marcus Stroman had struggled against Baltimore this year with a 1–2 record and 7.04 ERA. But Blue Jays manager John Gibbons put the ball in the hands of his opening-day starter. Stroman delivered the goods pitching six innings, yielding two earned runs, and striking out six. More importantly, he gave his team a chance to win.
The Jays got homers from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion—who both clearly wanted to play at least one more game at Rogers Centre.
The game took those watching through highs and lows in quick succession.
“Superman” centre-fielder Kevin Pillar came up with one of his trademark diving catches off Manny Machado’s bat in the fourth inning, potentially saving a run. But the next batter, baseball’s home run king, Mark Trumbo, hit a two-run blast off Stroman.
In the 10th, Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna had to leave the game with a shoulder injury. In a shaky bullpen, losing Osuna would be catastrophic for Toronto’s playoff ambitions. But on came Francisco Liriano, who was in the running to start the game.
The clever trade-deadline pickup shut the door on the O’s. And then Baltimore brought on starter Ubaldo Jimenez in the 11th, who gave up three straight hits, including Encarnacion’s bomb.
“Both teams deserved to win that game,” said Gibbons. But only one of them could.
As is usually the case in big games, the losing manager’s decisions are questioned. O’s manager Buck Showalter didn’t use closer Zach Britton—a Cy Young candidate with jaw-dropping numbers. Showalter said Britton was fine, but missed his opportunity to use him.
The game was a chess match between managers. Gibbons’ decisions paid off.
Despite all the good things about the game, unfortunately, sometimes a game with so much on the line also brings out the worst behaviour in people. Somebody—not a baseball fan—threw a can of beer at O’s left-fielder Hyun Soo Kim as he caught Melvin Upton Jr.’s fly ball on the warning track.
That barnburner of a game sets the stage for another ALDS featuring the Jays and Texas Rangers.
Of North America’s six “major” sports leagues—NHL, NFL, MLB, MLS, CFL, and NBA—making the playoffs in baseball is the most difficult with only one in three teams successful. Adding the second wildcard has not compromised the exclusivity of playoffs in baseball and has generated meaningful September baseball for more teams.
After a 162-game regular season, it certainly generated a game for the ages before the playoffs start in earnest.
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