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Sting of Blue Jays' loss fading for Gibbons

Manager recounts positives of season as Toronto turned around to reach playoffs

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has played the half-inning over in his mind more times than he can count:

American League Championship Series Game 6, top of the ninth. Royals leading, 4-3, a win from the World Series. Gibbons' Blue Jays facing elimination, trying to force Game 7.

• Blue Jays on first and third, nobody out, with Kansas City's Wade Davis pitching.

Dioner Navarro fans, runner on first steals second.

Ben Revere swings and misses on a nasty 2-2 pitch.

Josh Donaldson, Toronto's most productive hitter, slaps a grounder to third base, and it's over. Royals return to the World Series, Blue Jays go home.

It's been three weeks since that fateful Game 6 on a rainy night in Kansas City, and slowly the hurt and disappointment inside Gibbons has turned to realization of how great 2015 truly was for Toronto. The Blue Jays returned to the postseason for the first time since 1993.

"I'm doing fine," Gibbons said over the phone from his offseason home in San Antonio, Texas. "Yes, it came right down to the wire in that Game 6. We thought we had a good chance if we could push it to Game 7."

There was a pause and a deep sigh, followed by: "We're sitting there first and third, no outs. Then, second and third, one out, and looking for some contact. We just couldn't get it. But Wade Davis is pretty good, too -- as good in that role as anybody."

Video: ALCS Gm6: Gibbons talks emotions after losing Game 6

For Gibbons, 53 and a vintage baseball lifer, that game was filled with excruciating heartache. The Blue Jays, after a storybook victory over the Rangers in the best-of-five AL Division Series, kept coming back in the ALCS, but fell short in the end.

Just when it appeared the Royals had Game 6 locked with five outs to go, Jose Bautista launched a two-run homer -- his second of the game -- in the eighth to knot the score at 3. But after a rain delay, Lorenzo Cain raced home from first base on a single, vaulting Kansas City back on top, 4-3.

That Toronto was unable to get the tying run in from third base with nobody out in the ninth has obviously been a haunting thought.

As they roared to the AL East title, the Blue Jays' offense outscored opponents, 891-670. Yet as Gibbons points out: "Our offense was the key all year, but we struggled a lot in close games, one-run games."

The Blue Jays were 15-28 in one-run games. And when they scored four or fewer runs, they were 16-56 -- fifth worst in MLB.

"It's taken me two or three weeks to decompress, to get used to my family again," Gibbons said. "I look forward to going to Nashville for the Winter Meetings in December. Right now, I'm pretty good at doing nothing; I'm at peace."

Toronto could have a different look, especially the starting pitching, when Spring Training opens in Dunedin, Fla.

After then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos made Deadline acquisitions last July of David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere, the Blue Jays won 14 of 15 games en route to a 21-6 August during which they outscored their opponents by 87 runs.

"It was really a complete turnaround for us at the Deadline," said Gibbons. "We just caught fire. We took off. No question, but before Alex made those moves, we were basically a .500 team. That really set us off. He and Paul Beeston went out on a limb and made the moves we all knew we needed.

"We dropped the first two in the division playoffs against Texas, but came to win three in a row. That really sparked us."

Price, an AL Cy Young Award finalist who was 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA with Toronto after being acquired from Detroit, is a free agent. So is starter Marco Estrada (13-8, 3.13 ERA).

And Mark Buehrle, who actually led the Blue Jays with 15 wins, was expected to retire, but he now has second thoughts. He also is a free agent.

With the arrival of Mark Shapiro, who's replacing Paul Beeston as team president, Anthopoulos resigned.

"Mark Shapiro is a good baseball guy, too. So hopefully we can keep this going," said Gibbons.

Video: Blue Jays introduce Mark Shapiro as president and CEO

All of Toronto's position players are set to return, including third baseman Donaldson, a leading candidate for the AL MVP Award after being voted Major League Baseball's top player of the year in the union's annual Player Choice Awards.

"Who knows what David is going to do?" said Gibbons. "You only get that [free-agent] hammer once or twice. He's testing the market, and he should. Hopefully, we're competitive, make a nice offer to him and get him back. You never know."

Gibbons points out Marcus Stroman, who was injured during Spring Training and missed most of the year, will be a plus.

"Estrada is a big question, and even if Buehrle doesn't retire, I don't expect him back with us," he said. "Yes, we have some big holes in the rotation."

The negatives out of the way, Gibbons' voice brightened over the phone.

"We're proud," he said. "It turned out to be a great year for us. Kansas City had the most depth and was as well-rounded as any team out there."

But as sophomoric as it sounds, the Royals put the ball in play. And when that happens, a lot of good things in baseball can happen.

"In a lot of ways, the game has changed when it comes to that," said Gibbons. "People don't frown on the strikeout like they used to. In the World Series, when the Mets started booting balls, it opened the doors for Kansas City. And go back to our Game 5 against Texas -- they made three errors in one inning to open it up for us to come back.

"Yes, things can happen when you put the ball in play or force the opponent to make a play."

The Blue Jays were unable to do that when their season was on the line.

"The good outweighed the bad," said Gibbons. "We have a lot to look forward to next season."

And not too much looking back.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.
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