MEANINGFUL SEPTEMBER BASEBALL

What on earth did we just watch? I’m biased, of course, and still very much in the throes of the moment, but that honestly may have been the most incredible regular season baseball game I’ve ever seen. So let’s talk about it!

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Games of baseball like the one that was played at Rogers Centre on Friday night simply don’t happen. They certainly don’t happen to the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays — or, at least, they don’t happen in their favour. And yet this one did.

Where to even begin?

At the start of a must-win series against the Oakland A’s, who began the night three games up on the Blue Jays and two back of the Red Sox for the second AL Wild Card spot, the Jays came out flat. Rookie Alek Manoah allowed back-to-back singles to Josh Harrison and Starling Marte to start the ballgame, eventually issuing a one-out walk to Jed Lowrie to load the bases, then a double off the bat of Matt Chapman to put the Jays down 2-0 before they'd even had a chance to breathe, let alone bat.

Manoah escaped the inning, but his night as the focal point of the game wouldn't be done yet. Teoscar Hernández smashed a two-run home run with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on base to tie the game in the bottom of the fourth — the slumping slugger's first in 14 games, the previous 13 of which had seen him muster just six hits and two walks in 53 plate appearances. In the next frame, Manoah lost his ability to command, coming up an in on a 2-2 fastball with arm-side run that hit Harrison on the hand, then hitting Marte in the head on the very next pitch. Harrison had taken exception to the pitch that hit him, and tempers flared as Marte crumpled to the ground (though fortunately the benches didn't clear, allowing Marte to be examined by the A's training staff, who thankfully cleared him to stay in the game, albeit only briefly). Manoah seemed timid from that point, allowing another Chapman double to push the A's ahead 4-2. Then in the next frame he issued a four-pitch walk to Mark Canha, then a home run to light hitting Tony Kemp, making it 6-2 Oakland.

All didn't exactly seem lost for the Jays, but they were clearly not in a good spot — certainly not in a series where, accurate or not, anything less than a sweep would feel like a missed opportunity.

Things went from bad to worse in the top of the seventh inning when top prospect Nate Pearson, freshly arrived back in the big leagues as a potential shut-down high-leverage reliever, couldn't find the plate with his 100 mph fastball. After Matt Olsen reached on an error, Pearson gave up a Jed Lowrie double, an RBI single to Chapman, then one out later another RBI single to Kemp. He was BABIP'd a bit, and it maybe wasn't quite as bad as it looked, but it was bad. The Jays trailed 8-2. The job of forcing themselves back into the playoff race once again looked even tougher than before the day started.

Six outs later and it was time for the bottom of the eighth.

Breyvic Valera began the frame by working an eight pitch walk. George Springer followed, but after a foul and a swinging strike was called out on a bullshit strike three.

A Marcus Semien groundout pushed Valera to second, but gave the Jays just four mour outs to play with. And then the magic happened.

Vlad reached out at the first pitch he saw and dunked a run-scoring single into right field.

A wayward breaking ball from reliever Lou Trivino then hit Bo Bichette between the shoulders — surprising because of the previous ruckus, but certainly not intentional. Teoscar Hernández then worked his way back from 1-2 to earn a walk to load the bases. With new pitcher, Yusmeiro Petit now into the game, Alejandro Kirk also walked, forcing in a run to make it 8-4.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. then strode to the plate and absolutely crushed the first pitch he saw.

An incredible, unexpected, unbelievable comeback. This, without hyperbole, felt at the time like the high point of this entire Blue Jays season. Fans have been ready to count the team out so often, for so long, often with good reason. Our hearts have been broken and our nerves have been frayed. And here was this damn team showing up in an enormous way when it absolutely mattered most.

All they had to do from there was put away a deflated A’s team and savour an incredible victory. But it turns out it wouldn’t be quite so simple.

Jordan Romano. The Blue Jays’ only reliable, elite reliever all season. Sporting a 2.16 ERA, with 67 strikeouts in just 50 innings, with no runs allowed in his last ten games, and just a single blown save all season.

Romano threw a 0-2 fastball to lead-off hitter Matt Olson, who hit it back towards the mound. The pitcher deflected it, and Olson ended up safe at first. No matter, though. Working primarily with his fastball, Romano struck out Lowrie on three strikes, then put Chapman away after a brief battle with a whiff on some high heat.

Mark Canha, however, was not so easily done away with. It turns out that, as untouchable as Romano’s fastball has been over this most recent stretch, he still needs to keep it away from the absolute heart of the plate. On his first pitch to Canha, he did not, serving up as middle-middle a meatball as you’ll ever see him deliver. The A’s right fielder managed to line it to left, just barely keeping it fair — despite the best efforts of Romano’s body language — and into the mesh of the foul pole. 10-8 Oakland.

It was a cruel moment for a team and a fan base that all year has truly deserved better. And as it sucked the air out of the Rogers Centre, and potentially the Jays’ entire season, it almost seemed fitting. Another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory for a cursed team that simply isn’t good enough to play with the big boys.

But there was another chapter still to be written.

Bottom nine, Breyvic Valera leading off, just as he had in the Jays' six run eighth. A 1-1 slider from the A's new pitcher, Sergio Romo, catches too much of the plate, and he slaps the ball into left just hard enough to clear the infield but soft enough to get down before Kemp can reach it.

Now it’s time for the top of the order, and George Springer — burned last time by a bad call — gets himself a quick 2-0 count before Romo battles back with a slider that starts out coming right at the batter before darting into the strike zone at the last second, then a sinker he gets Springer to swing through. Springer fouls off a slider in the zone to stay alive at 2-2, then on the next pitch somehow reaches for a slider that’s both low and outside and hooks it down the left field line for a double.

Second and third. No outs. Enter Marcus Semien — and you probably know what comes next, because holy shit what came next.

Romo's plan was clearly to work Semien away. His first pitch, a slider, missed and caught middle of the plate but low in the zone, and Semien could only foul it off. Semien then watched a slider go way into the opposite batters box, fouled off a sinker that was off the plate outside, watched another slider miss, then fought a slider off that was belt high but outside. The count then was 2-2. Romo reared back to throw his sixth pitch of the at-bat, and he hung the shit out of it. Semien made no mistake.

Scenes! Absolute scenes! Bedlam! The Blue Jays win!

We can try to think of this one in the context of the playoff race. We can think about what it means, or what it might mean down the line. What it might not mean if the Jays don’t come back and win tomorrow or the next day. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it is, of course, just one game of 162. But at its core, baseball is about entertainment. It doesn’t always feel that way when you’re suffering through a disappointing stretch from your team, or you’re investing hours of your life only to have your heart broken by some relief pitcher. But these are the moments, winning season or losing season, fun team or team full of schmucks, that we’re all out here hoping and waiting for. This was a king hell of a ballgame. And the Toronto Blue Jays won it. They kept their September alive. They reminded us that they are capable of special things.

They also reminded us of why the phrase “emotional rollercoaster” exists. Because wow. Holy shit, that was awesome. Let’s keep on riding.