The AL wild-card game was a thriller, won by the Blue Jays 5–2 in 11 innings via Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off three-run homer. Had the blast been off of closer Zach Britton, the Orioles could say that they lost with their best, but curiously, Britton—who had warmed up in the eighth inning—wasn’t in the game. Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished the season with a 5.44 ERA, was.
It was a situation at least somewhat reminiscent of Game 4 of the 2003 World Series between the Yankees and Marlins, or Game 4 of the 2013 NL Division Series between the Braves and Dodgers. In ’03, Yankees manager Joe Torre called upon Jeff “5.99 ERA” Weaver in the 11th inning of Game 4 against the Marlins instead of Mariano Rivera. After pitching a scoreless 11th, Weaver allowed a walk-off homer to Alex Gonzalez to start the 12th. But that merely evened the series at two games apiece. In ’13, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez chose to stick with setup man David Carpenter in the eighth inning of Game 4 to protect a one-run lead, while Craig Kimbrel warmed up. Carpenter gave up a two-run homer to Juan Uribe while Kimbrel watched from the bullpen, and the Braves were eliminated after going down in order in the ninth.
Buck Showalter’s decision not to use Britton was even more extreme than both, as it came in a sudden death situation in what was already a do-or-die game. It will go down as one of the biggest managerial blunders in postseason history.
Some quick thoughts on the game.
Bottom of the ninth, tie ballgame, the heart of the Blue Jays order—Josh Donaldson, Encarnacion and Jose Bautista—due up. One swing of the bat can end your season; there is no higher leverage situation. You call on your best available pitcher, your best pitcher, the one who has somehow wormed his way into Cy Young conversations via a 0.54 ERA and one homer allowed in 67 innings, right? Sure, it’s not a save situation, but a save situation may never come. You’ve used Britton for as many as two full innings seven times in the past three season—including against the Blue Jays on July 31 in Toronto, no less, defying the orthodoxy of “don’t use your closer in a tie game on the road” that felled Torre and countless other managers. You put him in, hope your offense scratches out a run in the two innings where he’s available, and move on to your next-best pitchers if not.
Yet Britton, who had warmed up in the eighth inning, was nowhere to be found in the ninth, and instead Brad Brach, who had pitched a scoreless eighth, returned and immediately surrendered a double down the left field line. Brach intentionally walked Encarnacion, then caught Bautista looking at a slider on the outside corner. Finally, Showalter went to his bullpen—and summoned sidearmer Darren O’Day, not Britton. Like Mychal Givens in the fifth inning in relief of Chris Tillman, O’Day needed just one pitch to escape the jam, generating a 5-4-3 double play, and he stuck around to pitch a scoreless 10th.
Lefty Brian Duensing—him?—got the first out of the 11th by striking out lefty Ezequiel Carrera. Again no Britton; on came Jimenez, who threw just five pitches, yielding back-to-back singles to Devon Travis and then Donaldson, with Travis taking third. Still no Britton. Jimenez left a 91 mph fastball right in the middle of the plate, and Encarnacion, who hit 42 homers during the regular season, didn’t miss it:
Had Britton injured himself warming up, Showalter’s avoidance would have made sense, but the manager said after the game that there was nothing wrong with his closer. “No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo,” he told reporters, and while Jimenez’s 2.45 ERA over his final seven starts helped the Orioles secure the wild-card berth, Showalter’s excuse was weak. Said Britton, “It was just frustrating to have to sit down there and watch and not be able to help the team.” Showalter lost without getting his best pitcher into the game, and he and the Orioles will have to live with it.
The Power Game
As you’d expect from teams that ranked first and third in the league in home runs—Baltimore hit 253, Toronto 221—long balls were a big part of the story on Tuesday night, accounting for six of the seven runs. The Blue Jays got on the board first via Bautista’s second-inning solo homer off Tillman, a towering shot with a 38 degree launch angle. It was Bautista’s fifth postseason homer in 12 games; he had two apiece in last year’s Division Series against the Rangers (including his decisive bat flip in Game 5) and LCS against the Royals (both in the Blue Jays’ Game 6 swan song).
The Orioles answered in the top of the fourth inning. After Adam Jones singled and took second on a hit-and-run play that kept him from being erased on a double play, Manny Machado hit one into the right-centerfield gap that Kevin Pillar chased down, making a great diving catch, but on Marcus Stroman’s next pitch, Mark Trumbo, who led the majors with 47 homers, hit one into the leftfield corner. The shot was estimated at just 354 feet, Trumbo’s shortest of the Statcast era, but it was good enough to give the Orioles the lead.
Both managers had their choice of starters coming in. Stroman got the nod over lefty Francisco Liriano despite the Orioles posting the league’s lowest OPS against southpaws this year, but the 25-year-old righty justified the decision. He didn’t allow a single baserunner during his first pass through the lineup, using just 34 pitches, and while he scuffled in the fourth, he only allowed two hits, both singles, the rest of the way.
In all, Stroman threw 81 pitches and got seven swings and misses, five of them via the slider—his finishing pitch for five of his six strikeouts. He yielded just four hits and didn’t walk a batter. The AL leader in groundball percentage (60.1%) generated eight grounders, with just two flyouts and one line drive making it to the outfield.
The Blue Jays’ bullpen, which ranked 12th in the league with a 4.11 ERA and limped to the finish line without top setup man Joaquin Benoit, who suffered a calf strain in a bench-clearing brawl last week, gave manager John Gibbons five hitless, scoreless innings via the work of Brett Cecil, Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, Robert Osuna and Francisco Liriano, with six strikeouts and just one walk. But they may have suffered a serious blow, as Osuna left the game with shoulder tightness with one out in the 10th; Gibbons and Osuna both downplayed the issue after the game, but it bears watching. Liriano, who made sense as an option to start the game given the Orioles’ struggles against lefties, retired all five batters he faced and could have obviously pitched deeper had it been necessary.
Tillman, who got the nod over Jimenez despite a shaky September return from shoulder soreness, was solid through four innings, with Bautista’s homer and a subsequent four-pitch walk of the slugger his only blemishes, though his average fastball velocity (90.6 mph via Brooks Baseball) was lower even than his post-comeback velocity in September (91.7 mph), let alone his first five months (93.1). But he got into trouble in the fifth, when Michael Saunders hit a ground-rule double to left field and then Pillar doubled into the right field corner, with Michael Bourn just missing it. That should have scored a run, but Saunders, thinking the ball would be caught, only made it to third because he was tagging up. Showalter pressed his luck by letting Tillman face Carrera, who singled to center, scoring Saunders but not Pillar.
Bourn was a surprising but sensible addition to the lineup, playing right field instead of Trumbo—a vast improvement to the outfield defense, albeit at the expense of slugger Pedro Alvarez, the Orioles’ usual DH against righties. Bourn had two very good catches before that play, and stole a base that ended up going for naught, but stood out on a team that stole just 19 bases all season; Bourn himself stole 13 before being acquired from the Diamondbacks on Aug. 31. For all of the criticism as to whether he should have caught Pillar’s drive, it’s unlikely that Trumbo (-11 Defensive Runs Saved) would have.
In any event, that was it for Tillman after 74 pitches. He netted six swings and misses, four with the slider; three of those finished off his strikeouts. In all he whiffed four while allowing four hits and walking one. Givens extricated the Orioles from that jam by getting Travis to hit into a 5-4-3 double play and worked another 1 ⅔ innings. The Orioles bullpen, which posted the league’s best ERA, provided six scoreless innings before Jimenez came in, but it wasn’t enough.