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In a goofy season where no lead is safe, the Blue Jays must have known a six-run head start was not good enough for cruise control.
They had to reach double figures to win a one-run game on Saturday, as the Minnesota Twins stayed alive until the ninth before Toronto’s 10-9 decision was in the books.
“We get big crowds like that, we like to entertain them,” relieved manager John Gibbons said as 45,591 sweated along in the open-domed Rogers Centre.
He, too, was having flashbacks to recent late-game letdowns, such as last week in Chicago. This time, the Jays didn’t waste six strong innings from Marco Estrada, plus three hits from Josh Donaldson, including a perfect bunt and a home run. The bullpen wavered twice, in a four-run eighth and a rough closing by Roberto Osuna, hampered by a Justin Smoak error. Osuna also started a double play with the dangerous Joe Mauer looking for his fourth hit of the afternoon.
“The offence showed up today and and it almost fell apart,” noted Estrada, who threw almost 100 pitches to improve to 6-8. “I’m glad we pulled it out.”
Gibbons wondered if rust contributed to Estrada’s exit, sitting in the dugout, while the Jays batted around in their half of the fifth, scoring six runs. Ezequiel Carrera, taking full advantage of a chance at leadoff, singled to trigger an inning that saw Donaldson go deep and the next four Jays reach base. No. 9 hitter Raffy Lopez, in addition to guiding Estrada through some tricky pitch selections, ended the uprising with a two-run single.
“They took a run at (Estrada). But he’d been sitting awhile,” Gibbons said. “He lives and dies with location. He moves it around quite a bit. But he’s got to get certain calls and nibble at the corners. Marco’s been good since he got here. In a lot of ways, he was probably due for (a mid-season dip with a long line of no-decisions and one win since late May). I think he’s feeling good where he is right now.”
After Estrada left and the game reached the eighth, Gibbons agreed “it got a little hairy”. Four Twins runs came after reliable relievers Tim Mayza and Ryan Tepera loaded the bases for Max Kepler’s grand slam that auddenly cut th3e Jays lead to 8-7.
Donaldson’s RBI double, himself coming around to score, was only a brief respite as Osuna gave up a single and Smoak misplayed a grounder.
“I was standing in the corner (of the dugout), kind of blocked a little bit and I assumed it was an out,” Gibbons said of Smoak’s rare blunder. “I didn’t know what the hell happened.”
Osuna had to be quick and accurate to turn a 1-4-3 double play, then get Jorge Polanco to ground out to end the game.
The manager’s decision to give Donaldson a day off from third base on Friday, limiting him to designated hitter and taking the start from frequent DH Kendrys Morales, seemed to pay off. Both Donaldson and Morales were struggling of late, yet both homered Saturday.
“Josh needed to DH and get a little rest,” Gibbons said. “This time of year, they’re starting to drag, to fatigue a little more in the dog days of August. So a day here or there should help all of them.”
It was only the Jays’ second win in the past eight games, but their 50th in August the past three years, a winning percentage bettered only by the Chicago Cubs.
“That’s a tough lineup,” Estrada said of the wild card-chasing Twins. “The home run (from No. 9 hitter Eduardo Escobar), got away from me, I got a little lazy. Some pitches stayed over the plate, but I threw pretty well. I thought a lot of pitches were strikes that I didn’t really get. I’m not a guy that throws 100 (mph). I have to use every pitch I have.”
It was just enough on this day.
A LITTLE SMALL BALL FOR DONALDSON
Before clubbing his way on base in the usual manner, Josh Donaldson took a new route, via the bunt single.
“Definitely the element of surprise,” Donaldson said of his second inning move against Twins starter Dillon Gee. “I wasn’t seeing the ball very well out of Gee’s hands in my first at-bat (a strikeout) and Justin Smoak’s been swinging the bat well. I wanted to give him a chance with runners in scoring position. It was an extra positive to put it in a great place (down third base) ”
Smoak struck out but Jose Bautista’s long fly cashed Raffy Lopez.
Then came Donaldson’s 23rd homer, and 101st as a Jay, putting him six behind Kelly Gruber for the most by a Toronto third baseman.
“I was able to get a pretty good swing at it,” Donaldson said. “I’m getting pounded inside pretty much the last five or six games (3-for-28 his previous seven games), so it was nice to make an adjustment and get the barrel on the ball.”
He added a bloop double in the ninth inning.
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