TORONTO — Zach Britton, his shoulders slumped, standing in the center of the Baltimore Orioles clubhouse Tuesday night, tried to come up with the right words, but like everyone else, had no answers.
The Orioles, after their 5-2, 11th inning wild-card loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, were careful not to second-guess their manager, but were left dazed and confused.
Ubaldo Jimenez, standing on the mound in the 11th inning instead of Britton, says he was just as stunned as anyone to be last one on the mound, giving up Edwin Encarnacion’s game-winning, three-run homer into the second deck at the Rogers Centre.
“Yeah, of course,’’ said Jimenez, when asked if he were surprised Britton wasn’t in the game. “He’s our best pitcher.
“And couldn’t get into the game.’’
Britton, who not only is the Orioles’ best pitcher, but the finest reliever in all of baseball with 47 consecutive saves, never threw a single pitch in this game.
There were 13 pitchers used in the elimination game, throwing 297 pitches, but not a single one by Britton.
“It was just frustrating having to sit there watching that,’’ Britton said, “and not being able to pitch. It’s frustrating watching the guys battle ahead of you. You want to go in there, and do the same.
“But it’s not my call.
“It’s not my job to put me in the game.
“That’s Buck’s call.’’
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, widely considered a brilliant strategist, was left being second-guessed everywhere from his own clubhouse to the Blue Jays’ clubhouse to baseball executives, to the 49,934 fans at the ballpark.
“There’s a lot of different ways to look at it,’’ Showalter said. “If we didn’t have so many good options down. … We wanted to have a strong Zach and have him there in case the game goes extra innings.
“There’s so much more to that game. But I know the world that you have to live in. So I respect that.’’
This wasn’t just a bunch of cynical reporters second-guessing Showalter, but everyone asking how it was possible to have the best reliever in baseball warm up in the eighth inning.
Again in the ninth inning.
And again the 10th inning.
And not even budge when Jimenez got into trouble in the 11th inning.
Jimenez, who had pitched in 300 games in his career, but only eight times in relief, entered the game with one out and the bases empty in the 11th. Leadoff hitter Devon Travis greeted him with a sharp single. Josh Donaldson followed with a single to left-center, and Travis scooted to third when left fielder Nolan Reimold bobbled the ball.
Showalter came to the mound, Encarnacion stepped to the plate, and this is when the Blue Jays expected to see Britton. The Blue Jays figured Encarnacion would at least be intentionally walked, even though he had only a .220 batting average and one homer in 41 career at-bats off Jimenez.
Surely, now Britton would come into the game.
“I was expecting to come in certain situations,’’ said Britton, who was used for multiple innings seven times this season, including a five-out save in Sunday’s regular-season finale. “Maybe if there’s an opportunity for a double-play ball in a big situation, whether or not we were ahead, behind, or whatever.’’
This was the biggest situation in the entire game. Really, the entire season.
The bullpen gate never opened.
Showalter instead asked Jimenez to try to induce a double-play ground ball. Not once had Encarnacion grounded into a double play during his career against Jimenez.
Now, in the Orioles’ biggest game of the year, the Orioles were seeking a miracle.
It took one pitch for that decision to haunt them all winter.
Jimenez, throwing just his fifth pitch of the game, fired a fastball. He wanted to keep it low. It drifted up, and over, smack in the middle of the plate.
Encarnacion sent it into orbit, with the ball carrying deep into the left-field seats.
The Blue Jays are going on to play the Texas Rangers in the AL Division Series, a rematch of this bitter rivalry that has resulted in ejections, suspensions, and fights since 2014.
The Orioles, quietly packing their bags, are going home for the winter.
They walked out of their clubhouse frustrated with the loss, confused by Showalter’s decision.
And, yes, leave the second-guessing, to everyone else.
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