MINNEAPOLIS — Farewell to boring baseball.
The Blue Jays’ four-game series split saved its highest drama for the final inning, a controversial play at the plate that handed them the 3-2 win in 10 innings Sunday afternoon at Target Field and left Twins manager Rocco Baldelli throwing his hat, kicking the dirt and yelling at the umpiring crew.
With Whit Merrifield tagging from third on a throw home from left fielder Tim Beckham, there was a bang-bang play at the plate and he was ruled out. After a review, though, it was determined that Gary Sánchez did not allow a clear lane for Merrifield’s slide, and he was ruled safe. Then the Twins failed to score in the bottom of the inning.
“The ruling is that Gary violated the home-plate collision rule, and that the runner was safe,” said umpire crew chief Alan Porter when asked how Sánchez violated the rule.
“I thought it was going to be overturned and I thought it should be overturned,” Merrifield said. “Obviously, it’s a big point in the game, and you don’t want it to come down to a rules decision, but the rules are there for a reason. A while ago, I could have run him over and tried to free the ball, but you can’t do that anymore. He’s got to give me a lane to slide in. I didn’t think I had one. Like I said, I think they made the right call.”
Merrifield’s mind was buzzing as he came down the line, too. Earlier in the series, he’d seen how Sánchez sets up to receive a throw at home. He knew that he might drag Sánchez into his lane, so he took a straight shot, sliding feet-first. After the win, interim manager John Schneider praised his new player for “sliding correctly.”
“For someone to step in, in that situation, and ultimately make a decision that [he] was blocking the plate, that’s beyond embarrassing for our game, for all the players out there, on both sides of the field, working their [tails] off, for the entire game,” said Baldelli, who was ejected. “It’s completely unacceptable.”
After Baldelli’s ejection, the boos rained down louder and louder. On the other side were Blue Jays fans, who love to flood Target Field, cheering on the surprise turn. The steel and concrete of the stadium itself felt alive.
Playoff atmosphere? Get used to it
When Jordan Romano took the mound for the bottom half of the 10th, Twins fans cranked up the boos once more, matched only by chants of “Let’s go Blue Jays.”
Just like the Twins’ walk-off win on Friday night, Sunday felt different than the dog days of June and July. The Trade Deadline has passed, the AL Wild Card race is getting hotter by the day and each inning suddenly feels bigger. By October, it’s this style of baseball every single night.
“Whenever you get that experience, it’s great,” Schneider said after the win. “When you get into those spots again, it’s kind of like, ‘Been there, done that.’ I think it’s always better when you come out on the good side of it, but being in these spots is really great for the team. If we want to get to where we want to get to, there’s going to be a whole lot more of that.”
The master of first impressions
What a start for Merrifield with the Blue Jays. In just four days, Merrifield has shown Toronto the unique depth of his talents, whether that be in the box, on the bases or in the field. Having him available off the bench Sunday was the difference between a win and a loss, and for a player coming from a team with one of baseball’s worst records in the Royals, this has to feel like a new lease on life.
“Minnesota is a really good team. They’re in the middle of a playoff hunt as well,” Merrifield said. “It felt like a big series. It felt like one of the bigger series I’ve played in a while.”
We’ll need to see Merrifield continue this, especially offensively after an uncharacteristically slow four months to open his season, but his fit on this roster has been valuable and immediate. Whether it’s in center field or at second base, he’ll be in the lineup most days. When he’s not, just wait a few innings and you might see something like he provided off the bench in the series finale.
The AL Beast
It would still be a stunner to see the Blue Jays (60-48) close the 9 1/2-game gap on the Yankees (70-39) over the final 54 games, but New York has lost five in a row and there even red flags waving. The AL East is as strong as ever, though, with the surprise Orioles (56-52) winning and the Red Sox (54-56) the only club with a losing record.
In the Wild Card race, Toronto now has a two-game cushion on the top spot, with the Rays and Mariners tied below them. The Orioles, Guardians and White Sox all within three games of that second spot.