TORONTO — That the AL wild-card game was decided on a home run wasn’t a surprise.
The Orioles and Blue Jays were ranked first and third, respectively, in home runs this season.
So, no, Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off three-run homer with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning Tuesday night didn’t surprise a soul. It lifted Toronto to a 5-2 victory over Baltimore in front of a deafening sellout crowd of 49,934 at Rogers Centre and sent the Blue Jays into the ALDS against their nemesis, the Rangers.
But who Encarnacion hit the homer against qualified as nothing short of a shock, a decision that caused serial second-guessing of Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who left the sport’s top bullpen gun unfired.
With one out in the 11th, Showalter went to righty Ubaldo Jimenez as his sixth reliever of the night, rather than Zach Britton, unhittable much of the season in posting a 0.54 ERA in 69 appearances, making him an AL Cy Young and even MVP candidate.
Jimenez, who had 5.44 ERA this season, allowed a single to Devon Travis, then a single to Josh Donaldson, putting runners at the corners with one out.
Up stepped Encarnacion (42 homers this season), who ripped a first-pitch fastball to left to end it, firing both arms straight upward immediately after contact.
“Sure, it crosses your mind from about the sixth inning on,” Showalter said of when to deploy Britton, who allowed one earned run over his last 57 innings of the regular season. “Our pitchers pitched real well the whole game to hold that club to two runs at that point. You could make a case, probably other than Zach, Ubaldo is pitching better than anybody we’ve had for the last six or seven starts. Those are a lot of tough decisions, but we’re maybe a little different if you’re playing at home.”
After starter Chris Tillman allowed two runs and four hits in 4 1⁄3 innings, Showalter’s bullpen did come through, with Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day throwing 5 2⁄3 shutout innings. There were some raised eyebrows when Brian Duensing started the 11th — he struck out Ezequiel Carrera — and Jimenez came next.
Though Jimenez did post a 2.91 ERA over his last 11 starts of the season, he was no Britton. And even with runners at the corners and one out, the lefthander stayed in the bullpen.
“There’s a lot of different ways to look at it,” Showalter said.
In a matchup of two of baseball’s top offenses — Baltimore ranked first in homers with 253 and Toronto ranked third with 221 — pitching mostly ruled the night.
Patchogue-Medford High School’s Marcus Stroman, tabbed by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons to start over lefty Francisco Liriano, which created quite a bit of controversy here, was mostly terrific. The righthander rewarded his manager’s confidence by allowing two runs and four hits in six innings. He struck out six. The only runs came on Mark Trumbo’s two-run homer — he hit an MLB-best 47 during the season — that gave Baltimore a 2-1 lead.
Jose Bautista’s second-inning homer off Tillman gave Toronto a 1-0 lead and Carrera’s RBI single in the fifth off Tillman tied it at 2.
Liriano was part of some outstanding work by the Blue Jays bullpen, pitching 1 2⁄3 innings of shutout ball at the end to pick up the win.
“You look at how they’ve run the game all year, nobody does it better than the way they do,” Gibbons said when asked if he was surprised not to see Britton. “I never question what anyone else does. You know what? Most people don’t ever agree with your decisions regardless.”