TORONTO -- The 2016 Blue Jays may not have the same offense as last year's ballclub, but the defense has become an unmistakable staple of the current team's identity.
While Toronto's 5-2 victory over the Orioles in Tuesday's American League Wild Card Game will be remembered for Edwin Encarnacion's walk-off home run in the 11th, the team's defense gave the Blue Jays a chance to hang tight all evening before breaking through.
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A trio of spectacular defensive plays highlighted the outing, with Kevin Pillar starting things off with one of his patented sliding catches to rob Manny Machado of extra bases in the top of the fourth. According to Statcast™, the ball had a hang time of 4.4 seconds and landed 75 feet from where Pillar was positioned at the start of the play. Batted balls with that combination were converted into outs just 44 percent of the time (17 of 39) in 2016.
Troy Tulowitzki added to the highlights by stealing a base hit away from Jonathan Schoop deep in the hole in the fifth. Josh Donaldson then calmed a tense Rogers Centre crowd by showing off his range in the top of the 10th against Schoop, with Encarnacion completing the assist at first with a tricky recovery in the dirt.
"The defense on this team is always unbelievable," said Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman, the recipient of Pillar and Tulowitzki's highlight-reel efforts. "That's why I pitch the way I do -- I trust the guys behind me -- and I trust every single member of our team. I pitch with that mentality that I'm going to come at you, I'm going to have you guys put the ball in play, and I trust the guys to make the play."
While the Blue Jays' run-scoring prowess has come and gone this season, the ability to limit opposing teams has allowed Toronto to win three close games over the past four days.
"Those kinds of defensive plays pump our crowd and they excite our guys," Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis said. "Our team has been able to do this all season, and it's been fun learning from some of the veterans like JD and like Tulo."
Toronto's restructuring on the defensive end started to pay dividends last season. The acquisition of Donaldson from Oakland, Pillar's eventual takeover as the everyday center fielder in early April, Encarnacion's improved play around first base and Tulowitzki's addition at the Trade Deadline have all carried over to this season.
With the Blue Jays' pitching staff finishing the season as one of the top statistical units and featuring a variety of ground-ball and fly-ball specialists, the consistency of the defence once again complemented all six Toronto pitchers on Tuesday.
"It's been our blueprint this year," Pillar said. "We have had good pitching and we have good defense. It started last year, when we went out and got some of these guys -- like Tulo -- who are two-way players. They go hand in hand. When our pitchers work fast, that's how we play defence to keep us in the game, and tonight it really showed."