Determining the turning point of a baseball game is often a dubious undertaking. It tends to involve lazily applying hindsight and overly simplifying a game ripe with “if x then y” variables.
While it’s a practice generally used to bend events into a preferred narrative lane, there are games that seem to teeter on an edge – a brief window where either team has the chance to seize a win. For the Toronto Blue Jays, Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays felt like that kind of game.
That decisive moment happened in the top of the sixth inning. The Blue Jays were clinging to a thin 2-1 margin, and Francisco Liriano was labouring. The starter walked Rickie Weeks Jr. and then induced a groundball to Chris Coghlan, who booted it to give the Rays runners on first and second with no outs. If the Blue Jays were going to blow a lead – something they’ve done with consistency lately – this was going to be the moment.
With the game on the line, manager John Gibbons called on one Joseph Biagini to wriggle out of the jam. The right-hander has been called on all year in crucial situations – and for lengthy stints. He came into the game ranked 10th in appearances (12) and second in innings pitched (15) among relievers.
“I’m definitely less comfortable with guys on base, anybody would be,” the affable right-hander said of the spot he was in, while making the unusual choice to speak with a Blue Jays-themed screen separating him from reporters. “I’m more comfortable right now than I was in the game.”
From there, the 26-year-old proceeded to give an approximately three-minute ramble on the pressure of pitching in high-leverage moments, which in typical fashion contained kernels of home-spun wisdom.
“I used to talk about this with my dad, I remember people saying, ‘This guy is a superstar because he elevates his game in the big situations.’ I never bought into that,” Biagini said. “I always thought it was more likely that the best players are able to be themselves in the biggest situations.”
The first hitter the right-hander faced on his high-pressure day was Tim Beckham. The Rays shortstop was intent on bunting, but got more than he bargained for with a big two-strike curveball and strode back to the dugout after a foul bunt. Although the threat of the bunt distracted Biagini throughout the at-bat, he kept things as simple as possible throughout.
“In that situation you don’t want to overthink it,” he said. “You don’t want to overthink this interview, these questions you’re asking, and you don’t want to overthink in the game.”
Biagini’s second adversary was the powerful left-handed infielder Brad Miller who came off the bench for the occasion. After getting ahead 2-0, a fastball-changeup-fastball combo had him sitting on the bench next to Beckham.
Then Kevin Cash went with yet another pinch-hitter in the form of big first baseman Logan Morrison, who rolled a grounder over to Darwin Barney to end the frame.
Three batters, three outs, no runners advanced, and the lead was safe.
In the bottom of the inning the Blue Jays would get a two-run home run from Justin Smoak, which allowed for the kind of late-game breathing room the team has been wanting for all year. It would be foolish to assume that hit wouldn’t have happened without Biagini’s intervention, but it’s also not crazy to imagine the performance giving his team a boost that carried into the next inning.
From there on, the Blue Jays were able to ease to the finish relatively uneventfully. Biagini managed another scoreless frame that was spotless outside of a scary pitch that got away from him and hit Steven Souza square on the hand.
“That’s not fun,” Biagini said of the pitch. “I’d rather give up a home run to somebody than injury somebody or put them out for a while. Fortunately they said that nothing was broken so it’s a day-to-day thing. Thank God for that.”
Joe Smith followed Biagini, allowing two base runners in the eighth, but escaped on a loud but ultimately harmless Morrison fly ball caught by Kevin Pillar. Roberto Osuna – whose recent struggles have been well-documented – locked down the game with a one-two-three ninth.
Reflecting on the Blue Jays win, there was a lot to like. Liriano was effective, if inefficient. The offence produced just enough, and outside of Coghlan’s lapse the team played the field well.
However, there’s a pretty good chance none of that would have mattered if Biagini didn’t do his job, and do it well. Luckily for the Blue Jays, that’s what he’s been doing all year.