Blue Jays walk off for ninth straight
Toronto wins after countless highlight-reel plays
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays were able to win eight games in a row because of the league's best offense and timely pitching from their starting rotation. On Wednesday night, it was the defense that allowed the streak to continue.
Toronto's defense was a glaring weakness last season, but through 54 games this year it has become an underrated asset. Even in a game the Blue Jays likely had no business winning, the gloves were enough to steal a victory away from Tampa Bay.
The highlight-reel plays happened early and often as a series of defensive gems kept Toronto within striking distance and eventually set the table for Anthony Gose to lay down the extremely rare walk-off bunt in a 3-2 win vs. the Rays at Rogers Centre.
"We played all sorts of defense out there," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "They were hitting some rockets, they were barreling some balls up and we just made some great plays all around to keep that game at two."
There's an old cliche in baseball that good defense never takes a night off, but in this particular game it needed to work a little overtime. Blue Jays starter Liam Hendriks was technically effective, but his final pitching line didn't come close to telling the full story.
Hendriks is the type of starter who isn't going to overpower anyone. He pitches to contact and needs to keep the ball down in the zone in order to induce lazy fly balls and weak grounders. When Hendriks leaves the ball up in the zone it can be a recipe for disaster, and for a while on Wednesday night, that's where things appeared to be headed.
The 25-year-old's final line of two earned runs over six innings looks impressive, but it masks the fact that Tampa Bay hit seven outs to the warning track. There also was a shot by Desmond Jennings that went above the second deck in left field but sliced just foul. Add in a ball that bounced off the wall in center and a two-run shot by Wil Myers during the second and it was a very loud -- if not productive -- night by the Rays offense.
The main reason the hard-hit balls didn't produce a lot of runs, though, was because of Toronto's defense. There seemed to be an endless number of difficult plays that took extra-bases away from the Rays and prohibited Tampa Bay from pulling away.
"You have to give them credit, they beat us with their defense," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
The strong play on defense began in the third when Gose brought back memories of Devon White from the early 1990s by ranging into right-center field and making a leaping grab at the wall. In the seventh, it was Melky Cabrera going far to his right and crashing into the wall but still hanging on for the jumping catch.
The stellar plays weren't limited to the outfield. In the sixth, second baseman Brett Lawrie was shaded into shallow right field to cover more ground with James Loney at the plate. A ball was hit to Lawrie's left and he came up with the diving stab before making an equally impressive throw. Even Juan Francisco, who isn't exactly known for his defense, got in on the action with a diving play at third base to take a hit away from David DeJesus.
Yet another game-saving play came in the top of the ninth. By that time, Lawrie had been switched to third base in order to make room for Steve Tolleson at second. It's the move the Blue Jays often make in late-game situations for defensive purposes, and this time the decision paid immediate dividends. With a runner on and two outs, Yunel Escobar hit a slow roller toward third that Lawrie charged, bare-handed and fired to first to end the inning.
"That was incredible out there," said Hendriks, who threw 62 of his 95 pitches for strikes. "I was battling there for a little bit and they picked me up big time and they made some amazing plays behind me. It's incredible."
The all-around effort on defense allowed the Blue Jays to remain tied in a game they otherwise should have been trailing by at least a few runs. It paid off in a victory as Toronto won for the 14th time in 16 games following a rally in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Dioner Navarro led off with a single. Gose came up next and perfectly executed a bunt down the first-base line. His speed forced right-handed pitcher Juan Carlos Oviedo to rush the throw to first base. Oviedo's toss was low, wide of first and sailed down the right-field line.
Pinch-runner Kevin Pillar ran to third and didn't stop. Worst-case scenario would have seen Gose end up on third with one out, but that situation never presented itself because Pillar dove into home with a headfirst slide and was called safe on the late throw from Myers.
"I've felt more confident this year in getting it down," said Gose, who went to instructional league this winter to specifically work on his bunting. "I got it down tonight, just trying to move the runner over and good things happened."
With the victory, Toronto secured its third consecutive series sweep and moved 10 games above .500 for the first time since May 21, 2009. The Blue Jays have won 20 games in May, which falls just short of the club record for a single month set in 2003.