MINNEAPOLIS — It was playoff-style action in August, four back-and-fourth games, more than 14 hours of play to get them in and one fiasco of a finish to end it all.
The Blue Jays snuck out of Target Field with a 3-2 extra-innings win on Sunday to earn a 2-2 series split with the AL Central-leading Twins.
And what an escape it was.
They did so thanks in part to a controversial – though technically correct – video review for an overturned call to rule Whit Merrifield safe at home after determining Twins catcher Gary Sanchez was illegally blocking the plate.
That judgment from New York triggered one of the truly great managerial meltdowns of the modern era when the Twins’ Rocco Baldelli nearly lost his mind after that 10th-inning out call at the plate was reversed by a video review.
“That was probably one of the most chicken-s— things I’ve ever seen on a baseball field, done to a team,” Baldelli ranted afterwards. “And for someone to step in, in that situation and ultimately make a decision that was blocking the plate … that’s beyond embarrassing for our game.
“(It’s embarrassing) for the players out there on both sides of the field working their asses off for the entire game.”
The Jays, as you would expect, were much more of the chicken salad than chicken poop opinion, an end result that allowed them to overcome a blown 2-1 lead at the hands of closer Jordan Romano in the bottom of the ninth.
By the letter of the rule, the call could certainly be seen as correct, although the interpretation was certainly a huge verdict for a pair of teams gearing up for pending playoff races – and playing like it throughout the weekend.
It was clearly a sweet ending for the Jays, who are 3-3 through six games of a nine-game road trip, part of a 19-game stretch against opponents with winning records.
“Maybe a little bit,” interim Jays manager John Schneider said when asked if he was surprised that the call to secure the winning run was overturned. “But I think the call was correct.”
So too did Merrifield, a savvy, speedy runner who has already had a huge impact in his first weekend with the Jays. His instincts were bang-on as he advanced from second to third on a sacrifice in the 10th and again on the mad dash home on another fly ball to the outfield.
“I had a feeling there was going to be a play at the plate,” Merrifield began his description of what unfolded. “I put my head down, the first couple of steps, looked up saw Gary straddling home plate – just tried to slide into him straight on as best as I could.
“I know what the rule is. I think they rightfully called it. I thought it should be overturned. 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.
“He’s got to give me a lane to slide in and I didn’t think I had one. I’m glad they made the right call.”
Baldelli, of course, disagreed. Heartily (and profanely), you might say.
“They made a play on the field, which is the right call, which every person in all of baseball – including the umps – know is the proper call,” Baldelli said. “And someone in New York decided that was worthy of being overturned on the field. It’s (bleeping) awful.”
Schneider had no doubt what he was challenging, however, seeing the same thing as Merrifield – a blocked lane at the plate.
Ultimately it was a call that could have gone either way, one that ended a series that was intensely exciting between a pair of teams hoping for much more of the same in the weeks ahead. The Jays recorded their 60th win and improved to 4-6 in extra-innings games.
But beyond the numbers and the controversy, they felt the intensity of a showdown with a quality opponent at a time of year when the intensity starts to get ratcheted up.
“I’m so excited to be playing in a playoff race and doing things that I know helps my team win games,” said Merrifield, who had hits in each of his three games as a Jay and added the base-running prowess in his fourth. “When the opportunity presents itself and I’m on the bases, I know I can cause a little havoc with my legs. I feel like stuff like that is valuable to a team of this talent, especially this time of year.
“That felt like one of the bigger series I’ve played in for a while, so it was kind of fun.”
What seemed like hours before the chaos had begun, Jays starter Kevin Gausman pitched six scoreless innings, allowing six hits while striking out five. In the 14 innings he’s pitched in his past two starts, the talented right-hander has yet to allow a run.
They’ll need more stellar efforts like that, especially with a bullpen that is in full grinding mode. But character wins – even those tinged with controversy – carry added value the deeper the season moves.
“Getting out of here with a split in a game like that – that’s a good team – hopefully it carries over a little more,” Schneider said. “Being in these spots is really good for a team. If we want to get to where we want to get, it’s going to take a whole lot more of that.”