The battle for the American League East heated up on Friday night, as the division-leading Baltimore Orioles headed into town for a 3-game set. Marco Estrada faced Kevin Gausman in a game that looked to offer just about everything: bad blood, incredibly powerful lineups, and potential playoff implications.
The Orioles' offence proved to be dangerous right off the get-go. Hyun Soo Kim crossed up the shift with a one-out bunt single, and Manny Machado promptly followed with a four-pitch walk. The next hitter, Chris Davis, hit a potential double play ball to first base, but the defensive alignment forced Justin Smoak to simply get the out at first base. Up came the MLB homerun leader, Mark Trumbo, who proceeded to crush a two-strike fastball into the gap in right-centre for a two-RBI double. 2-0 Orioles.
With Jose Bautista leading off the game for the Blue Jays, Gausman hung a second-pitch breaking ball right over the heart of the plate. Bad idea. Bautista's favourite pastime is crushing Orioles pitching, and a 422-foot solo shot immediately cut the deficit in half. 2-1 Orioles.
After Josh Donaldson followed with a deep fly out, it was Edwin Encarnacion's turn to make hard contact. Gausman tried to strike him out on an elevated fastball, but it was left in the zone and crushed into the left field bleachers to tie the game just like that. Encarnacion's 28th of the season erased the early deficit with still just one out in the inning. Blue Jays 2, Orioles 2.
The newly acquired Melvin Upton Jr. looked to be in awe of his team's sluggers, and the Rogers Centre got even more electric just minutes later. Troy Tulowitzki stepped up with two-out and joined the party, golfing a low breaking ball over the wall in left for YET ANOTHER solo shot. The Blue Jays offence came to play, and the home team now held the early 3-2 lead.
Darwin Barney got the start at second base over Devon Travis, and quickly made his presence felt on the defensive end. With a runner on first and two-out, Adam Jones squibbed a weak groundball past a diving Estrada. Barney, who was shifted almost directly behind second base, sprinted way across the diamond before flipping the ball with his glove to end the inning. Both teams failed to score in the 2nd, and the Jays maintained the one-run lead heading into the 3rd.
Estrada surrendered another free pass to Machado with one-out in the third, and the Orioles quickly tied the game on a bizarre play. Chris Davis hit an easy groundball into the shift, and Josh Donaldson got the out at first while essentially playing shallow right field. After advancing to second, Machado bolted for third, leaving Russell Martin to cover the empty base. The Blue Jays catcher couldn't come up with Smoak's throw, and the ball bounced away to allow Machado to score. Blue Jays 3, Orioles 3.
Toronto's offence got right back to work in the bottom half, as Encarnacion walked to lead off the inning, before Michael Saunders followed with an infield single. Matt Weiters threw the ball into right field on the play, allowing the runners to advance even further. A groundout to second allowed Tulowitzki to cash a run, and Martin followed with an RBI single just past the glove of a diving Jonathan Schoop. A heads up play would then allow Martin to advance to 2nd on a ball in the dirt, and Kevin Pillar took advantage with an RBI-single of his own. Blue Jays 6, Orioles 3.
The back-and-forth continued in the 4th, as Schoop hit a one-out single, advanced to third on Pedro Alvarez's double, then scored on a routine groundout. Estrada stranded Alvarez by striking out Jones to end the inning, but Toronto's lead was cut to 6-4. The hitters clearly boasted the edge in the early going.
Vance Worley came on in relief to start the bottom half, and put an end to an attempted two-out rally by getting Tulowitzki to groundout to short. Worley followed with clean 5th and 6th innings, but Estrada returned the favour with 1-2-3 innings of his own. With 99 pitches after the sixth, Estrada gave way to the newly acquired Joaquin Benoit to begin the seventh.
Given a two-run lead, the 39-year old righty started off his night in an odd fashion. Alvarez led off by hitting a groundball to Smoak, but home plate umpire Jim Reynolds ruled that Benoit missed the bag when covering first. While it looked like Benoit kicked the edge of the bag, the replay did not show conclusive evidence, and the Orioles were given a base runner due to the questionable call. The veteran Benoit bounced back by getting Hardy to ground into a double-play, then pitched around a two-out walk for a scoreless frame. Toronto still held a 6-4 lead heading into the 7th Inning Stretch.
Jason Grilli entered to begin the 8th, after the Jays failed to get anything going in the bottom half. Machado quickly welcomed him to the ball game with a first pitch homerun, but an otherwise clean inning limited the damage. Toronto went down quietly yet again in the bottom of the 8th, meaning the lead was down to one heading into to 9th.
Blue Jays' closer Roberto Osuna came in for the save opportunity, and was scheduled to face Schoop, Alvarez, and J.J. Hardy. Jonathan Schoop fouled out for the first out, and Alvarez quickly followed with a strikeout. The Orioles were down to their final out, and Hardy just missed tying things up with a double off the left-field wall. Lead off hitter Adam Jones stepped up with pinch-runner Ryan Flaherty at second, but a groundball to Josh Donaldson would be relayed to first to end the ball game.
Jays of the Day: Roberto Osuna (.161), and Edwin Encarnacion (.150). Let's give one to Jose Bautista (0.42) and Troy Tulowitzki (.79) for those first inning home runs, as that really gave the team some momentum.
With the win, the Blue Jays sit just half a game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the division lead. J.A. Happ goes up against Yovani Gallardo tomorrow afternoon, and the winner leaves with the division lead. Orioles fans, be very afraid.
Estrada says his back was bothering him early in tonight's start; that's why velocity was down and he was struggling to locate his changeup— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) July 30, 2016