Monday, March 28, 2016

Defend With Me the Liberties of Day and Mysteries of Night

During last season, there were so many amazing moments for the Toronto Blue Jays that it is very easy to forget many of them in lieu of the very memorable major moments. I mean, obviously Jose Bautista throwing his bat into the other team's dugout after the most significant hit of the season is going to take precedence in my mind over something like Danny Valencia hitting a home run in Kansas City during a game the Jays lost. But the narrative of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays was made up of so many stories that all contributed to the excitement surrounding the team.

I could rattle off about 50 different plays that made me jump out of my seat last year, but this one is one of my favourites:

The New York Yankees came to Toronto on September 21st for a three game series, trailing the Jays by 3 & 1/2 games. It was exhilarating to see the Jays in first place, but September was also a stressful month schedule-wise because of how many games would be against Toronto's division rivals. First the Jays had swept the Yanks in New York, then the Yankees came in and took two out of three in Toronto. The Jays were ahead by a nose, but that could change quickly if the Yankees won a series against Toronto. It was a weird (great) time as a Jays fan because on one hand you felt on top of the world and confident in the team, as it truly felt like they could do anything, but there was also a familiar sense of doubt that crept in at moments like these. I had seen the team collapse late in the season so many times before, so even though I knew that the Jays were the best team in the league, there was a tiny negative voice trying to drag this down in the back of my mind.

David Price started the game and it turned out to be a very tight game throughout. The Jays came into the 8th inning leading 4-0, needing the bullpen to hold the Yankees in check to secure the win. Aaron Sanchez, the team's right-handed set-up man, had had a bit of a problem with his control all season and promptly walked the light-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius (a great baseball name). Dustin Ackely followed this with a single and suddenly there was two runners on and a win that seemed to be in-hand was very much falling out of hand. There were still no outs, so the Yankees scoring and tying the game, or worse, taking the lead, was not an unreasonable expectation. Given the playoff implications of this game, that the Yankees could jump up a whole game in the standings by winning, the atmosphere was extremely tense. I was watching the game in the apartment I share with Rebecca and I couldn't sit still. I could feel my discomfort in my chest.

For the last 22 years, the New York Yankees had routinely made an example of the Toronto Blue Jays in their yearly marches to the playoffs. I had experienced the Yankees crushing my excitement about baseball in Toronto far too many times. At one point the Jays had lost 17 straight games at Yankee Stadium. This season was different though and the Blue Jays seemed to be getting the better of the Yankees at much better clip.

Aaron Sanchez was taken out of the game and left-handed curveball virtuoso Brett Cecil was brought into the game. Brett Cecil is one of the longest-serving Blue Jays on the current roster. Once part of a promising, young starting rotation in 2010, Cecil had trouble replicating that success over the next two years and spent most of 2011-12 in AAA. Cecil found his place in 2013 after beginning the season in the bullpen and becoming a lights-out left-handed reliever for high-leverage situations. During the 2013, '14 and '15 seasons, Cecil was one of the best and most valuable bullpen pieces in all of baseball.

The at-bat he was coming into against Jacoby Ellsbury was a very high-leverage situation. This means that it would probably mean a lot to the eventual outcome of the game. Ellsbury hit a single and now the Yankees were on the board. This was not the way that Jays fans wanted a series against the Yankees at home to start. The Jays had backed themselves into a corner and basically the only way out was strikeouts because anything else would probably score runs. Striking out batters, especially when there are runners on and the batter is trying to put the ball in play, is very hard.

Tell 'em Britney:

With the score now 4-1 and there still being two runners on with no outs, Cecil struck out the Yankees excellent left fielder Brett Gardner on a beautiful curveball. I finally exhaled. One out.

Alex Rodriguez, one of the very best players in baseball history, someone who stands a reasonable chance to break the all-time home run record, came up next. Rodriguez has had a tumultuous relationship with Blue Jays fans since this happened. Again, Brett Cecil struck him out on a curveball that looked like it was by the hand of fucking Michelangelo.

Now confidence began to swell. I felt a lot of pride towards Cecil because he had been on the Jays for some of the bad years. He had come up in 2009, when there weren't many redeeming factors about the team, and had been there for the monumental disappointment of the 2013 season. On a team that was mostly made up of new faces, Cecil was a crucial link to the team's past. He also loves really bad rock/metal like Three Days Grace and Avenged Sevenfold and him being so unabashedly into something that lame just makes like him even more. He's always been a guy I rooted for and genuinely wished well on, so seeing him succeed made me really happy.

Brian McCann came up and though the stress of the first two at-bats had lessened, he still posed a huge threat, as he has always been a more than capable hitter and has significant power. At this point my thoughts had turned from "Okay Brett, get the team out of this" to "Strike this fucker the fuck out right now Brett". Once again, curveball, down.

I jumped up and down on the couch. Cecil dropping anvils on Gardner, A-Rod, and McCann consecutively to strike them all out in the top of the 8th was one of the best pitching performances I had ever seen. This is Ricky Vaughn coming in at the end of Major League. You just need to substitute "Shepherd of Fire" for "Wild Thing".

Many people often mistake the last outs recorded by the winning team to be the most impactful because they seal the victory, but that is incorrect. Brett Cecil came in here in what was without a doubt the biggest situation the season up to that point and, as they correctly mention in the above video, the biggest moment of his career. This is the type of thing that only happens once a season, if you are lucky.

This was more or less eclipsed two days when Russell Martin hit a huge 3-run home run to put the Yankees away for good in 2015, but I swear to God, I will remember Brett Cecil striking out the side as a definitive moment of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays for my whole goddamn life.

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