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Scott Stinson: Blue Jays win battle but lose war in heartbreaking end to regular season

TORONTO • The biggest problem for the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 162 of their season was unlikely to be the team that took the field at the Rogers Centre to face them.

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The Baltimore Orioles are technically a major-league team, but in practical terms they are something much less than that. They had lost 109 games before Sunday, and in their last five meetings against the Blue Jays, all losses, they had scored 24 runs and given up 60.

And so, the 12-4 blowout that followed was not a surprise. George Springer led off the game with a home run for Toronto, added a grand slam a couple of innings later, and the game was essentially finished except for the final accounting. When the Orioles weren’t surrendering no-doubt bombs, they were making a mockery of outfield defence. Tyler Nevin sailed a routine throw over the head of catcher Pedro Severino in the third inning, and Austin Hays stumbled cartoonishly while chasing a Bo Bichette liner in the fourth. Hays hit the dirt and bounced off the right field fence, and it was a fine encapsulation of the Baltimore season.

By the time Hyun-Jin Ryu had got out of the fifth inning with a nine-run lead, it was hard to understand how the Boston Red Sox had somehow just dropped two games to the Orioles. Did someone grease their bats? Did they let the clubhouse staff take a few hacks? Surely Boston couldn’t have lost those games had they actually been trying.

As it happened, while the Jays were figuratively sitting on the Orioles’ chest and making them punch themselves with their own fists on Sunday, Boston was giving another flagrant display of baseball weirdness. The Sox, tied with the New York Yankees coming into Game 162 for the two American League wild-card playoff spots, were closing out their series in Washington against the woeful Nationals behind ace starter Chris Sale. The Nats countered with Joan Adon, a 23-year-old who was making his MLB debut. Adon was not exactly a sizzling prospect: He spent most of the season in single-A, and had a 6.43 ERA in 14 innings of AA ball in 2021. A lively discussion in the Toronto press box pre-game had centred on whether the Nationals would get in trouble from MLB officials for trotting out an untested kid to pitch a game with such important playoff implications.

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And then of course he went out and shut down the Red Sox. The Nationals chased Sale early and Adon gave up just two runs through five-plus innings. By the time the Jays were two hours into their drubbing of the Orioles, Washington was up 5-1 on the Sox. The scenario that the Jays needed coming into Sunday to make it to a Game 163 — win their game, and have one of Boston or New York lose theirs — was very much in play.

All of which led to an unusual scene at the Rogers Centre. The Jays were strolling through a casual romp, belting homers and giving a crowd of just under 30,000 all kinds of reasons to enjoy themselves at the ballpark, but meanwhile the important stuff was happening many thousands of kilometres away. The stadium operations crew really ought to have put Sox-Nats on the scoreboard in centre field, since what was going on there was the thing that would determine whether the Jays had a game to play on Monday. (They could also have split-screened the Yankees-Rays game in New York, since a loss for the home team there would also extend the Jays’ season.) Instead, the Jays went through the late-inning motions of an easy win, and those who understood that they still needed help kept their eyes on their phones, and nearby television monitors, to see what was happening out of town. During the seventh-inning stretch in Toronto, as the crowd was happily doing the “OK, Blue Jays” thing, Boston’s Alex Verdugo was ripping a double to right-centre, scoring two runs in Washington to tie that game at 5-5. Suddenly, for all the good work the Jays had done on the afternoon, they were staring at games knotted in Washington and New York, one of which they needed to break their way.

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It was one of the strangest days in Toronto baseball history. The big-money pitcher did what you would expect a big-money pitcher to do. The big-money outfielder did the same, and then some. Vlad Guerrero, Jr., blasted an opposite-field home run, because that’s what he’s been doing all year. And with all that going on, the Jays’ fate was left to Washington and Tampa. Not ideal.

With the Jays about to bat in the bottom of the eighth, Aaron Judge plated a run in the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium with an infield single. The 1-0 win over Tampa gave the Yankees one of the AL wild-card spots and closed one of the two doors that was open to the Jays. The Rogers Centre seemed largely unaware of this development.

After the final out in Toronto, the crowd gave the home side a standing ovation. It’s unclear how many in attendance knew that the team’s fate was being decided over in Washington, where the game was still tied in the ninth. Moments later, the Sox-Nats game was put up on the scoreboard, and moments after that — honestly, on maybe the second or third pitch that was shown to the emptying stadium — Boston’s Rafael Devers crushed a ball over the centre-field fence to give the Red Sox a 7-5 lead.

It was a brutal end to what had been an optimistic day. The fans who had immediately left the dome after their team won, blissfully unaware of what was happening in Washington, had the right idea in the end.

The Jays did what they had to do, but the two teams they needed to bail them out instead gave up game-winning runs in the ninth.

Playoff baseball can be heartbreaking, even when your team isn’t playing.

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