TORONTO — In their first two games of the season the Toronto Blue Jays were not a fun team to watch. They produced very little, struck out a lot and hit solo home runs to earn two of their three runs.
On Saturday, Kevin Pillar injected some new life into the proceedings when the centre fielder became the first Blue Jay to steal second, third and home in the same inning. The historical feat did not play into the outcome — it resulted in the fifth run in a 5-3 win — but it sent shockwaves through Rogers Centre.
Even down in the clubhouse after his start, Marco Estrada could feel the intensity.
“I was watching on TV, you could hear it, it was that loud that even in here you could hear the fans cheering,” he said. “It’s just awesome to watch. You could see him at third base kind of jumping around and you’re thinking, ‘man he might actually take this base’ and he did. It was awesome.”
So, how did Pillar pull off one of the rarest plays in baseball? First of all, he picked his target well. Coming into the game base runners had gone 59-for-69 stealing bases against Dellin Betances in his career, giving the long-limbed right-hander a well-earned reputation for allowing larceny to go unpunished on his watch.
“We know the guys that have tendencies,” Pillar said of Betances. “Guys that don’t necessarily like to pick off to bases, don’t really want the ball in their hands.”
The other side of the battery was a little more intimidating, though.
“With Sanchez back there, he’s a game changer,” Pillar said. “Granderson had a pretty good jump on his [caught stealing] but that why it’s tough to steal. Some of these catchers like Sanchez have such good arms [the pitcher] doesn’t really matter anymore.”
With Sanchez’s arm as a deterrent Pillar knew the key would be getting a massive lead, because the ball was going to come in hot.
“Sometimes you just have to get out there and get a big lead and understand getting picked off at first is no different than getting thrown out at second,” he said.
Pillar rode that philosophy to a massive walking leadoff and broke on a 1-0 count — usually a spot for a fastball. Betances floated in an off-line high curveball. Sanchez didn’t have a throw and the Blue Jays outfielder has his first steal.
Baseball’s conventional wisdom might have stopped him there. Making either the first or third out at third base is a cardinal sin, and with two men on, the risk of stealing third with two outs generally exceeds the reward. That’s not the way Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera saw it, though.
“Luis was encouraging me to come to third base to see if we could draw a throw, maybe an overthrow and we could score that way,” Pillar explained. “That was the thought process.”
With Gift Ngoepe facing an 0-2 count, Pillar knew Betances was likely to put a breaking ball in the dirt. That’s precisely what happened and he was able to scamper down to third without a throw as Sanchez corralled the ball.
Arguably, Pillar had pushed his luck at that point, but he had one more gamble in him. Even though Betances was a right-hander with a solid sightline to third base and working out of the stretch, Pillar decided third time was the charm.
“I got to third base I felt like they weren’t holding me on. They were playing back, playing to get the hitter out and I got a pretty big walking lead and I started jumping up and down to see if I could get his attention but he didn’t lose focus on the plate,” he said. “I told myself, ‘if he comes set right now I’m going to gamble here,’ and I’d say it worked out.”
Betances was caught totally off guard. The massive right-hander was caught between pitching and throwing to the plate and blew a wild pitch past Sanchez. He wasn’t the only one in the building completely shocked by the move.
“It caught me off guard. I’ve never seen anybody do it from the stretch. That’s almost a no-no,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “But you could see him coming off third base and it didn’t look normal. So I’m glad he did. I’d love to take credit for it but I can’t.”
The Blue Jays dugout erupted with joy for the most exciting insurance run in the history of Rogers Centre.
“To be honest I liked it more than my homer,” said Yangervis Solarte through translator Josue Peley. “You always want to see your teammates do something like that, something you don’t see very often.”
Big words from the guy who won the game with a doomed-to-be forgotten 455-foot rocket. He wasn’t wrong, though. The Blue Jays won on Saturday thanks to a sturdy outing from Estrada, a big game from Justin Smoak (on his bobblehead day no less), a clutch RBI single from Luke Maile, and of course Solarte’s tape-measure shot.
But all anyone is going to remember is what Kevin Pillar did on the bases — and rightfully so.
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