David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - Eleven pitches in. Four mound visits by his catcher, Brian McCann. And there was Troy Tulowitzki, still staring back at him, standing in the batter's box. Waiting for No. 12.
Andrew Miller was in a world of hurt, and he had no one to blame but himself. Called on to cement the Yankees' hard-earned 4-3 lead in the ninth inning, Miller -- fresh off Tuesday's blown save, his first this season -- issued a one-out walk to pinch hitter Chris Colabello before Kevin Pillar slapped a single through the shortstop hole, maybe a foot or two away from being a double-play grounder.
Then a wild pitch. The winning run in scoring position.
By then, you couldn't hear anything but the roaring crowd inside Rogers Centre, trying to knock Miller off the mound with the decibel blast of a jet engine. Somehow, Miller fought back, whiffing Ben Revere for the huge second out.
But that left Tulowitzki.
As soon as the Blue Jays' new shortstop and converted leadoff man moved from the on-deck circle, the chant began: "TU-lo, TU-lo, TU-lo."
Already on their feet, the fans must have figured Miller was toast. A hit by Tulowitzki, and the Jays likely had a walk-off win and a firmer grip on first place in the American League East.
Miller wouldn't let it happen. He just kept firing slider after slider, with Tulo fouling off six two-strike pitches. Each time, McCann slightly shifted the location. Twice, Miller tried fastballs, but Tulowitzki didn't chase, making it a full count. And the only reprieve from the TU-lo chant were the occasions when McCann went to the mound, resulting in thunderous boos.
"Gosh, I don't know what we talked about," Miller said. "Signs, sequence. It was a pretty good chess match."
Miller's signature slider looked as if it would tie up Tulo each time, yet he somehow got a piece, twisting around like a corkscrew as the ball skipped foul toward the Jays' dugout. It was exhausting to watch. And to be on the field?
"I was just thinking, put it in play already," Chase Headley said. "Because the only place he could hit it was to me."
Joe Girardi, frozen on the dugout steps, had the same idea. Asked what was going through his mind, the manager said, "Just hit one of those ground balls to someone."
But that's not how this was resolved. And honestly, that didn't feel like a suitable ending. This needed a clean, light's-out punch. Not a TKO.
Miller reared back once more, rifled another slider, and Tulo swung through it. The ball popped safely into McCann's mitt. Asked what was different about that pitch, Miller shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "It was all a blur. It worked -- that's what was different."
McCann provided a bit more insight. Tulo missed that finishing slider because it was better, plain and simple. "It was a little tighter," McCann said. "A little more back-foot on it."
It also was a very big deal. Miller jumped off the mound, his long arms spread wide before pounding a fist into his glove. McCann greeted him with a chest bump. The fact that the two had the strength to stand at that point was a feat in itself.
"That at-bat to Tulo, that's all I got," Miller said. "That was everything I got that inning."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons described the Miller-Tulo showdown as a "classic." All of the Yankees were exhausted after that, not just Miller, who threw 28 pitches in the ninth inning. The toll was evident, and Girardi believed it was as much mental as physical.
"I think it's both," he said. "That's a lot of pitches for a closer."
Friday night's victory was about as must-win as a night can feel in mid-August, and the Yankees jumped back into first place. It was Miller's 26th save, but he'll remember this one more than most. So will anyone who watched him go toe-to-toe with Tulo for 12 rounds in the Jays' home gym.