AL Wild Card: Blue Jays Walk Off into ALDS

October baseball is competitive, unpredictable, and compelling. SoSH Baseball spends most of our year looking at the weird, wild, wonderful world of baseball – as well as the intricate and the analytical. With a month of pressure-packed games to cover – the real, and the fictional – we’ll do our best to keep you covered. Dave McCullough fills us in on how the Blue Jays walk off win against the Orioles was fueled by a decision by manager Buck Showalter.

If that’s what we’re gonna get for the rest of October, allow me to say thank you and hallelujah, Baseball Gods. Because that was some thrilling, exciting playoff baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles played a spectacular game, with Toronto winning 5-2 in 11 innings. Both teams gave it everything they had, and Major League Baseball got itself a showcase for how riveting its postseason action can be.

Toronto drew first blood in the second inning, with notorious postseason bat-flipper Jose Bautista launching a home run to left field. Baltimore struck back for two runs in the top of the fourth, with the AL’s leading home-run hitter, Mark Trumbo, blasting one to left with Adam Jones on base. The Blue Jays evened up the score in the bottom of the fifth when Ezequiel Carrera singled home Michael Saunders.

In the bottom of the ninth, I was prepared to crush Baltimore manager Buck Showalter for not managing to win. Instead of using Cy Young candidate closer Zach Britton in a tie game, Showalter instead stuck to the book: as the visiting team, he saved Britton and instead went with reliever Brad Brach. However, Josh Donaldson ruined Showalter’s best-laid plans, doubling down the line. After an intentional walk, the best manager to never win a World Series again passed over his best reliever (Britton) and instead deployed Darren O’Day from the bullpen with men at 1st and 2nd with one out. And then O’Day made his skipper look brilliant by inducing a ground ball to third that Manny Machado deftly turned into a double play, snuffing out the threat. Showalter got out of inning with his best reliever still waiting in the bullpen.

Crisis averted, we’re going to extra innings. Perhaps Showalter’s bullpen management won’t be the story.

Lefty Brian Duensing got the call to face Carrera leading off the 11th, striking him out looking. With one down in the eleventh, Showalter reemerged from the dugout – this time to summon (usual) starter Ubaldo Jimenez to face Devon Travis. The Orioles starter-turned-reliever had a rough regular season, but an excellent September – and as the announcers rationalized, “he once was near unhittable.” But Travis singled on a 1-1 count into left for a base hit. Up next, Donaldson laced the first pitch he saw – a 91-mph hanger – into the left field gap, and Travis hustled his way to third, making it 1st & 3rd with one out and Edwin Encarnacion due.

Showalter then convened a team meeting on the mound as part of his third appearance of the inning. A brief conference ended with Jimenez still on the mound. So, of course, his first pitch to Encarnacion was drilled over the left field fence for a game-winning walk-off homer. Jimenez has made 298 major league appearances – not including the postseason. He had started 290 of those. Four of his career eight relief appearances did happen this season, though.

The Baltimore Orioles lost an extra-inning game where their best reliever remained unused in the bullpen. Britton had given up four earned runs all season, and Showalter made three pitching changes in the 11th – never summoning his best option.  The “book” says that on the road, only bring in your closer once you have the lead. Showalter went strictly by the book, using up his other relievers and eventually bringing in a guy with fewer than ten regular-season relief appearances. In the space of four pitches, the Orioles went from tied in extra innings, with one out and no one on base, to eliminated from the postseason.

The sudden ending to this game was brought about by Showalter’s mismanagement. Going to Jimenez instead of Britton cost him another postseason opportunity, and another series. In his postgame press conference, the Orioles manager denied that he was going by the book, but did acknowledge that Britton was available.  He defended his bullpen usage by saying “well, what happens later if you need someone to close?” Buck went strictly by the book. And it worked – for a time. But his third change of the inning was one conventional change too many. Instead of going with his best with the game on the line, Showalter went with “the many options” he had confidence in, including a starter with limited relieving experience. Britton watched the end of the Orioles season from the bullpen, awaiting a call that never came from a manager who was too conservative and too “by the book” in the biggest moment of the biggest game all year.


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