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Blue Jays Bring Major League Baseball Back to the Queen City

By: Brian Frank

The 2020 season was a roller coaster ride for professional baseball in Buffalo. After the minor-league season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it appeared certain there’d be no professional baseball played in the city. However, a sudden turn of events in late July brought major-league baseball back to Buffalo for the first time since the Federal League’s Buffalo Blues played here in 1915.

As the coronavirus spread throughout the country in the spring and early summer, it became painfully obvious that playing a minor-league season with no fans in attendance would be impossible. The Bisons held a solemn press conference on June 30 to announce that for the first time since Buffalo was without a team in the 1970s, there’d be no baseball season in the city. Mike Buczkowski, President of Rich Baseball Operations, remembered the mood at the time: “After I said that the season had been cancelled, I thought boy this is just incredible. This is just crazy that we’re actually saying this. But as I said at the press conference, there are a lot of people going through a lot worse than cancelling a baseball season.”

However, major-league baseball forged ahead with a condensed 60-game schedule to commence in late July. The Canadian government allowed the Blue Jays to hold summer camp at Rogers Centre, since the team could remain quarantined within the facility and its adjoining hotel.

The Blue Jays had to file a separate request with the government in order to play the regular season in Toronto. On July 18, just six days before the season was set to begin, the Canadian government denied the team permission to play regular season games in Toronto. The reasoning was the virus was much more widespread in the U.S. and the Blue Jays and visiting teams would be repeatedly crossing the border.

The Blue Jays immediately began searching for an alternate location to play their season, preferring to use a major-league facility. The Pirates agreed to share PNC Park with the Blue Jays. However, the state of Pennsylvania refused to grant permission for the Blue Jays to play there because cases were on the uptick in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Blue Jays spring training complex in Dunedin had already been ruled out because Florida was a hot spot for the pandemic. Toronto officials quickly turned their attention to Baltimore’s Camden Yards. The Orioles agreed to share their ballpark, but with time growing incredibly short and Maryland Health Department approval anything but a certainty, the Blue Jays announced on July 24 that they would be playing the majority of their 2020 home games at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. The team also announced that their practice squad would be working out at Rochester’s Frontier Field.

It was during the press conference announcing the Blue Jays were coming to Buffalo that Buczkowski said it hit him that after major-league expansion dreams had been shattered in the early 90s, the goal of bringing a major league team to Buffalo had finally been realized. “I did my opening part, I turned it over to Mayor Brown and while he was talking… I don’t know it just hit me right then, it was like this is just surreal,” Buczkowski said. “It’s just surreal. What I just said, that major-league baseball is going to be played in Buffalo, is just surreal. And for the first time I really started to think about it. All the work in the late ‘80s and early 90s. When I got back up to the podium I had to compose myself a little bit because that’s the first time that I think I let it creep in. And it’s just ironic, so much effort was put in from Bob and Mindy Rich and the people who worked in our front office. For seven or eight years, people gave their heart and soul to try to bring major league baseball to Buffalo.”

The Swan Street Gate at Sahlen Field.

The Blue Jays immediately began to transform Sahlen Field into a major-league quality facility, while also allowing for room for the social distancing necessary due to the pandemic. The upgrades to the 32-year-old ballpark seemed endless. Among them: new lighting; a new infield; expanded dugouts; batting cages in the concourse area; new weight rooms; a temporary structure in right field for a visitor’s clubhouse; and Blue Jays graphics throughout the ballpark. “If you closed your eyes and walked into that stadium, and opened your eyes down where the Blue Jays players are going to be, you might think you’re at the Rogers Centre,” Buczkowski said the night before the Blue Jays were to arrive in Buffalo. “That’s the length that the Blue Jays and the people they’re working with have gone to try to create this home feeling for their players. And I think the players are going to be impressed with the work that’s been done.”

The reviews from the Blue Jays upon their arrival in the city were just as Buczkowski expected. “It’s still going to feel like a visiting team because we haven’t been here,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “I mean half of the players haven’t played here yet. I think after the next few days, then it’s going to feel like home and the job they did here, how they built everything and they have Blue Jays everywhere, how comfortable it is for the players, the weight room, the dining room, everything. They did a great job. So I think after the next two days playing on the field, and seeing how it plays, I think it’s going to become like we’re the home team for sure.” Blue Jays general Manager Ross Atkins added: “What they did to brand it and make it feel like the Toronto Blue Jays home. Really, it really is, it’s kind of jaw dropping to see the significant difference. And then the second thing is just the thoughtfulness around maximizing the space… and just how much room players have to move.” A few games into the Blue Jays stay in Buffalo, veteran hurler Matt Shoemaker gave his stamp of approval: “I’m pretty floored. It’s pretty astonishing what work was done in about a week’s time period. What the organization did, what all the staff involved did to get this place ready. I’m very supplied at how good it is from a facilities standpoint. Never being here before, just hearing what guys who have played here have said about it. Like I said, it was about seven or eight days. All the work that was put in. It looks incredible inside… For what we need, for players from a facilities standpoint, it is phenomenal.”

Even though fans are not allowed to attend games due to the pandemic, baseball fans across Western New York embraced the idea of major-league baseball returning to our local field. The excitement around the region was high for the long awaited arrival of Major League Baseball to Buffalo, New York.

Sahlen Field ready for the Blue Jays' arrival.

Game 1 at Sahlen Field, August 11, 2020: Toronto Blue Jays 5, Miami Marlins 4, in 10 innings

On September 8, 1915, the Buffalo Blues of the Federal League defeated the Baltimore Terrapins 5-4. Almost 105 years later the Toronto Blue Jays brought major-league baseball back to the Queen City.

The Blue Jays first game at Sahlen Field pitted them against the Miami Marlins. Miami had been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other team. The Marlins had their season grind to a halt after playing just three games. They were unable to play for seven days due to 18 of their players testing positive and were then forced to somehow cobble together enough players to resume their season. With a patched up roster, Miami somehow won the first five games after the week layoff, before dropping a pair to the Mets. They headed to Buffalo sitting atop the N.L. East with a 7-3 record.

The Blue Jays schedule was also affected by the pandemic. They had a four-game series with Philadelphia postponed when the Phillies had an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. Blue Jays players stayed in Washington and worked out at Nationals Park during the days they were supposed to be in Philadelphia. Another hardship for Toronto was the fact that, including two pre-season games in Boston, they’d played 15 consecutive road games since breaking summer camp at Rogers Centre. Perhaps a bit road weary, Toronto dropped two out of three at Fenway Park before finally coming to Buffalo, which was dubbed as their home away from home.

Sign on the 190 North welcoming the Blue Jays to Buffalo.

While the Blue Jays were warming up prior to their first game at Sahlen Field, the Big Board in center field played an inspiring video from Blue Jays players’ family members. Later, a moment of silence was held for Blue Jays legends Tony Fernandez and Damaso Garcia before the anthems.

Toronto took the field in their brand new baby blue alternate jerseys, as cardboard cutout fans looked on from behind home plate. Included in the cutouts were: Bisons owners Bob and Mindy Rich; Governor Andrew Cuomo; former mayor Jimmy Griffin; Blue Jays legends George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield; former Voice of the Bisons Ben Wagner; Blue Jays fan and lead singer of Rush Geddy Lee; Toronto’s famous “home plate lady”; and, of course, Bisons superfan Mark Aichinger. Artificial crowd noise was played over the speakers in the stadium in an attempt to make the atmosphere seem more authentic.

Cardboard cutouts of the Sportsnet Broadcasters, including former Voice of the Bisons Ben Wagner, second from left.

The first major-league pitch in Buffalo, New York in 38,324 days was hurled by Hyun-jin Ryu to Jonathan Villar at 6:41 PM on August 11, 2020. Villar hit a dribbler in foul territory on the third base side. Ryu ended up striking him out on a 2-and-2 curveball. Jesus Aguillar became the first baserunner in a major-league game at Sahlen Field, when he drew a two-out walk, but Ryu was able to retire Corey Dickerson on a groundout to get out of the inning.

The first hit of the game came when Blue Jays first baseman Travis Shaw lined a ball through the shift on the right side of the infield. The ball was immediately secured in order to be sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The first run of the contest came when Brian Anderson lined a Ryu offering over the left-field wall to lead off the second inning. That’s the only run the Marlins would manage off the big left-hander from Incheon, South Korea. Ryu was brilliant, tossing six inning and allowing one run on two-hits and two walks, while fanning seven batters.

However, Toronto had trouble ealyagainst Miami starter Elieser Hernández. Hernández breezed through five innings before the Blue Jays finally broke through in the sixth, thanks to a trio of former Bisons. Danny Jansen led off the inning with double that short-hopped the wall in left. Cavan Biggio then hit a high fly ball to the opposite field that hit off the top of the left-field wall. However, Jansen held at third base after slowing to make sure the ball wouldn’t be caught. The next batter, Bo Bichette, hit a high fly ball that cleared the left-field wall and gave the Blue Jays a 3-1 lead.

The Blue Jays added to their lead in the seventh. Randal Grichuk drew a one out walk. After Joe Panik struck out for the second out, Jansen walked to push Grichuk up to second base. Cavan Biggio stroked a single to right that Grichuk easily scored on, to put the Blue Jays up 4-1.

Toronto seemed to have the game in the bag, as their bullpen initially took up right where Ryu had left off. Rafael Dolis and former Bison Jordan Romano both worked a perfect inning, before closer Anthony Bass came on to work the ninth. Bass had been lights out so far in the young season, working 6.1 scoreless innings.

However, Bass gave up a leadoff double to former Bison Jon Berti. After retiring the next two batters on a fly out to center field and a ground out to first, Brian Anderson drew a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. Francisco Cervelli then launched Bass’s 31st pitch of the inning over the left-field wall to tie the game. A.J. Cole had to be summoned from the bullpen to get the final out of the ninth. The Blue Jays were unable to get a run in the bottom of the frame and the game moved to extra innings.

A.J. Cole remained in the game for the tenth inning. A new rule placing a runner at second base to start each inning during extra innings meant that Lewis Brinson began the inning at second for the Marlins. Logan Forsythe crushed a ball inches to the left of the left-field foul pole. It was originally ruled a home run, but was overturned after replay was checked and called a foul ball. Forsyth ended up striking out, and Eddy Alvarez was retired on a fly out in left-field foul territory. Cole then intentionally walked Villar. Both runners moved up on a wild pitch, before Jon Berti flew out to center to end the inning.

Stephen Tarpley came in to work the tenth for Miami. With speedy Anthony Alford starting the inning at second base, Jansen laid down a successful sacrifice bunt to move him to third. Biggio then drew a walk, before Bichette was intentionally walked to load the bases with only one out. Shaw, who had the first hit of the game, also had the last hit, when he lined a 2-and-2 pitch into right field to score Alford and give the Blue Jays a historic 5-4 walk-off win.

Buffalo baseball fans would have found it unimaginable just a few weeks ago, that a major league game would be played right here in our city. On a night when the eyes of the baseball world were on Sahlen Field, Travis Shaw provided the perfect ending to a game 105 years in the making.

Game 2 at Sahlen Field, August 12, 2020: Miami Marlins 14, Toronto Blue Jays 11, in 10 innings

The second ever major-league game at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field was even wilder than the first. The Blue Jays fell behind 8-0 in the contest, before setting all kinds of home run records while battling back to take the game to extra innings, before ultimately falling.

Rookie fire-baller Nate Pearson took the mound for Toronto. Pearson was making his first start at Sahlen Field since starting for the Bisons on August 25, 2019. Even though the 23-year-old was regularly hitting 98 mph on the radar gun, and touching 100 mph at times, he struggled from the outset. After recording the first two outs in the first inning, Pearson gave up a walk, single, and then a three-run home run to Brian Anderson. Things got worse in the third inning, when nine Marlins batters came to the plate and five came around to score, to put Miami in front 8-0. Pearson didn’t make it out of the nightmare inning, lasting only 2.1 innings, allowing seven runs, four earned, on five hits, four walks, and recording only one strikeout.

The Blue Jays got on the scoreboard in the second inning, when Teoscar Hernández blasted a 466-foot home run, the longest of his career. The two-run shot was a sign of things to come. In the fourth inning, Rowdy Tellez sent a pitch into the parking lot in right field, another two-run shot, to cut the Marlins lead to 8-4.

The Marlins answered back in their half of the fifth, when an error and four singles led to three runs off reliever Jacob Waguespack, and increased their lead to 11-4. But the Blue Jays kept fighting back. A two-run home run by Travis Shaw in the fifth inning cut the deficit to five runs. Shun Yamaguchi, who’d struggled earlier in the season, kept the Marlins off the scoreboard in his 2.1 innings of work, allowing the Blue Jays to keep cutting into the lead. When Danny Jansen hit a two-run blast in in the sixth inning, it gave the Blue Jays four consecutive innings with a two-run home run, and put them within striking distance at 11-8.

Toronto continued to use home runs to put up runs. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit an opposite-field solo bomb in the seventh inning to make the score 11-9. Counting his time with the Bisons, it was the young phenom’s sixth home run in 19 games at Sahlen Field. Bo Bichette and Travis Shaw brought the Blue Jays all the way back with back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning. Bichette’s home run was his fifth hit in five at-bats, while Shaw’s home run was his second of the game.

Both teams were unable to get a run across in the ninth, so the game moved to extra innings for the second consecutive night. Marlins manager Don Mattingly employed some old-school strategy in the Marlins half of the tenth. With the new rule placing a runner at second base to start each extra inning, Mattingly had Jon Berti bunt off reliever Rafael Dolis to lead off the inning. Berti was able to push the ball past Dolis and make it to first without a throw to put runners at the corners. After Berti stole second, Magneuris Sierra blooped a single to right field, scoring two runs. Sierra advanced to second on a wild pick-off throw by Dolis, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Jonathan Villar, and scored on Jesus Aguilar’s single, and the Marlins led 14-11.

Bo Bichette led off the Bisons half of the tenth with a walk, to bring the tying run to the plate (Cavan Biggio started the inning at second base). But the rest of the Blue Jays went quietly, and when Brandon Kintzler fanned Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the Marlins had hung on for a 14-11 win.

According to Stats Inc., the Blue Jays became the first team in major-league history to have 18 hits and seven home runs in a game and still lose. On the positive side, Bo Bichette, who was 5-for-5 with a solo home run, walk, and two stolen bases, became the youngest player in Blue Jays history to record a five-hit game. He also became the first shortstop in baseball’s modern era (since 1900) to reach base safely six times, hit a home run, and steal a base. The Blue Jays also tied a couple of home run records. They tied a franchise mark by homering in six-consecutive innings. That also hit seven home runs (Shaw 2, Hernández 1, Tellez 1, Jansen 1, Guerrero Jr. 1, Bichette 1), tying a Sahlen Field record set by the 2004 Governors’ Cup Champion Bisons on July 2, 2004 against Syracuse (Sandy Martinez 2, Johnny Peralta 2, Eric Crozier 2, Brent Abernathy 1).

Following their win, the Marlins were finally able to return home to Miami to play their first home game after an excruciating 23 days on the road due to the team’s COVID-19 outbreak. Despite their hardships, they went back to Miami in first place in the N.L. East, one full game ahead of Atlanta.

As for the Blue Jays, after two dramatic extra-inning games, they were able to enjoy a day off in the Queen City, before taking on the Tampa Rays for a three-game series beginning Friday evening at Sahlen Field.

Game 3 at Sahlen Field, August 14, 2020: Toronto Blue Jays 12, Tampa Bay Rays 4

The Blue Jays home run barrage which began in the final game of the Marlins series, continued against Tampa. Once again, Toronto's hot-hitting shortstop, Bo Bichette, was right in the middle of the offensive explosion. The game was televised nationally on Fox Sports 1, so the entire country was able to tune in to watch major-league baseball in Buffalo, New York.

Just as they’d done in their previous contest, the Blue Jays dug themselves a hole they’d have to climb out of. Starting pitcher Tanner Roark got off to a rough start, walking leadoff hitter Austin Meadows and then surrendering a two-run home run to Brandon Lowe. In the second inning, the combination of Meadows and Lowe manufactured another run. Meadows walked with two down and Lowe singled to right field. When Teoscar Hernández’s throw went into second, the speedy Meadows raced home, scoring all the way from first base, to give Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead.

Sahlen Field prior to the Blue Jays taking on the Rays.

Battling from behind for the second night in a row, the Blue Jays once again turned to the long ball. Vladimir Guerrero ripped a ball into the gap in left field with two outs in the second inning, however the ball was hit so hard, Guerrero had to scamper back to first with a single. Two batters later, Rowdy Tellez blasted a two-run home run, his second in two games, to bring the Blue Jays within a run.

Cavan Biggo tied the game in the fourth inning with a solo home run. Tampa regained the lead in the sixth, when Willy Adames doubled, and after a couple of bases on balls, he scored on a Hunter Renfroe sacrifice fly.

Toronto’s offense exploded in their half of the sixth, when they sent eight men to the plate, slugging three home runs, and scoring five runs. It began with Randal Grichuk leading off the inning with a solo home run. Rowdy Tellez hit a hard groundball away from the shift for a single. After Danny Jansen flew out, Biggio was hit by a pitch, and red-hot Bichette cleared the bases with his fourth home run in four games. Two batters later, Teoscar Hernández finished the scoring with a solo home run, his second homer in two nights, and Toronto had an 8-4 lead.

After going down quietly in the seventh, the Blue Jays kept the onslaught going in the eighth. Danny Jansen started the inning with a walk, Biggio was hit by a pitch, and Bichette lined a single to left field to load the bases. Jansen scored on a wild pitch as Biggio and Bichette moved up a base. Teoscar Hernández then cleared the bases with his second home run of the evening and third in two nights. The three-run shot gave the Blue Jays a commanding 12-4 lead. A.J. Cole retired the Rays in order in the ninth to secure the victory, and the Blue Jays improved their record to 2-1 at Sahlen Field.

After hitting seven home runs in their final game against Miami, the Blue Jays drilled six home runs in their first game against the Rays. The 13 home runs in two games set franchise record, a mark that dated back to 1987. Hernández was not surprised by the explosion of runs. “Honestly, for me it’s not a surprise, because I know my teammates and I know the talent we have. I know we can do even more than that on the baseball field.”

Bichette continued his torrid hitting at Sahlen Field. In three games, the young shortstop is 8-for-14 (.571) with three home runs, two walks, six runs scored, and seven RBI. “I think we’re watching a star in the making,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said in his postgame press conference. “This guy’s just a good player. He’s a star in the making.”

Hernandez suggested that Bichette’s torrid pace was inspiring the rest of the Blue Jays lineup. “Everybody expects him to hit a line drive or homer because he’s really on fire right now and that’s the feeling that we have from seeing him in front of us hitting line drives everywhere. That makes us try to go out there and do the same thing to help the team.”

Blue Jays rout the Rays 12-4.

Game 4 at Sahlen Field, August 15 and 16, 2020: Tampa Bay Rays 3, Toronto Blue Jays 2

Home weather delays are obviously rare for the Blue Jays. The team has played under the retractable roof at Rogers Centre since 1989. The hadn’t had a weather delay during a home game in 17 seasons. Unfortunately, the streak came to an end while playing in Buffalo.

Prior to the second game of the Blue Jays’ series against the Rays, Charlie Montoyo noted that the first two games at Sahlen Field felt like the Blue Jays were still playing on the road, but: “It feels like a home right now.”

Blue Jays starter Chase Anderson, in just his second start of the season, lasted three innings before giving way to Wilmer Font in the fourth. The only run Anderson gave up in his 59 pitches was a home run to Austin Meadows in the third inning.

The Blue Jays had a pair of singles in both the first and fourth innings, but failed to bring a run home on either occasion.

Dark clouds south of the city started to become more ominous during the third inning with an occasional clap of thunder. After Font struck out Mike Zunino to end the Rays half of the fourth, the grounds crew scrambled to get the tarp on the infield before a torrential downpour soaked the outfield and flooded the dugouts. It was the first weather delay for a Blue Jays home game since July 26, 2003, when the Rogers Centre was unable to close its roof in time when a sudden storm hit.

An uncommon sight at a Blue Jays home game.

The Rays took refuge in the private boxes of Sahlen Field's upper level, rather than the temporary clubhouse in right field, due to the frequent lightning. The Blue Jays retreated to their clubhouse on the stadium's service level.“I tried to go see how the field was," Montoyo said, "but I couldn’t because the dugout was full of water."

After a one hour and 57 minute delay, the game was officially suspended. The game would resume the next day and be played to its completion as a full nine-inning game. The regularly scheduled game would follow, and be a seven-inning game, due to another new rule during 2020 pandemic baseball. It was the second time ever a Blue Jays home game had to be suspended and resumed the next day. The first time was at Exhibition Stadium on August 28, 1980, due to a Canadian National Exhibition curfew, so the rock band The Cars could perform.

Prior to the resumption of the game on Sunday, Montoyo announced that Bo Bichette had tweeked his right knee, while stretching the night before, and he’d be getting an MRI. Joe Panik replaced Bichette in the lineup.

The Rays sent reliever Jalen Beeks to the mound in the fourth inning of the resumed game. The Blue Jays tied up the game in their first at-bat against the lefty. Randal Grichuk doubled, moved to third on a passed ball, and scored on Rowdy Tellez’s single. Toronto sent rookie Thomas Hatch to the mound to start the fifth inning. He also surrendered a run in his first inning of work, on an RBI double to Ji-Man Choi.

Toronto bounced back in their half of the fifth to tie the score 2-2 on Teoscar Hernández’s RBI double. From that point on, both bullpens were able to shut things down until the ninth inning, when Brandon Lowe hit a leadoff home run off Jordan Romano to give the Rays a 3-2 lead. It was only the second hit and first run all season off Romano in 9.1 innings. Nick Anderson came out of the Rays bullpen to retire the Blue Jays in order in the ninth inning, to nail down his third save of the season.

It was a tough loss for the Blue Jays, especially on a day it was revealed their hottest hitter was injured. But the team had only 30 minutes to regroup before their regularly scheduled game.

Game 5 at Sahlen Field, August 16, 2020: Tampa Bay Rays 7, Toronto Blue Jays 5, in 8 innings

Between games, the Blue Jays announced they had placed Bo Bichette on the 10-day disabled list with a sprained right knee. With that news hovering over the club, Matt Shoemaker took the mound for Toronto against Tampa’s Yony Chirinos, in the first scheduled seven-inning game in Blue Jays history.

The Blue Jays showed no ill effects in the first inning coming off their tough loss in the earlier game. Shoemaker was dominant to start the contest, striking out the side in the first inning. The Blue Jays jumped on Chirinos early. Leadoff batter Cavan Biggio drove a ball off the left field wall for a double and Randal Grichuk, batting in Bichette’s usual spot in the order, hit a shot over the left-center field wall for a 2-0 lead. Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, a three-time gold glove winner and perhaps the best defensive outfielder in baseball, almost made a spectacular play on Grichuk’s home run. Kiermaier ran back to the wall, leaped, and had the ball nick off his glove, as the ball sailed over the fence.

Shoemaker continued to look strong, facing the minimum through three innings. He allowed a single to Kiermaier in the second, but quickly picked him off. However, everything came unraveled for the veteran hurler in the fourth. After giving up a single to Brandon Lowe and walk to Joey Wendle, Shoemaker struck out cleanup hitter Ji-Man Choi for the second out and looked like he may escape the inning unscathed. He got two quick strikes on Yoshi Tsutsugo. Shoemaker thought his 0-and-2 pitch to Tsutsugo was strike three, but home plate umpire Vic Carapazza disagreed, and the at-bat continued. Two pitches later, Tsutsugo launched a three-run home run to the opposite field, to give the Rays a 3-2 lead. A visibly upset Shoemaker struck out Willy Adames. On his way back to the dugout, Shoemaker had some words for Carapazza.

After Shoemaker returned to the dugout, Carapazza threw him and out of the game. A furious Shoemaker burst from the dugout to argue with Carapazza and had to be restrained by Charlie Montoyo, who was also ejected, and some teammates.

“I started playing baseball when I was five, and I’ve never been thrown out of a game.” Shoemaker said in his postgame press conference. “I didn’t use one word of profanity. I didn’t personally attack him. And I still got tossed. I think it didn’t help that there were no fans in the stands because he could hear everything I was saying. But even then, I was just saying things like that can’t happen… I’ll tell you exactly what I said. I said ‘It’s not my career right?’ That’s in the dugout. And that’s when I got tossed for saying that apparently.”

The Blue Jays answered right back. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. started the inning by sending a ball over the left-field screen onto Oak Street. Danny Jansen then drew a walk, and after Brandon Drury struck out, Anthony Alford launched a ball over the left-field wall to put the Blue Jays back on top 5-2.

With Shoemaker out of the game, the Rays were able to get a run off reliever Jacob Waguespack in the top of the fifth on a sacrifice fly. Toronto took a 5-4 lead into the seventh and final inning. A.J. Cole, who’d entered in the eighth to get an inning ending double play, surprisingly stayed in the game to pitch the ninth. Montoyo announced after the game that closer Anthony Bass was unavailable due to a tight back. With Austin Meadows at first and two down, Joey Wendle hit a line drive to right field that Teoscar Hernández appeared to have trouble deciding whether to charge or play back on. The ball dropped for a hit and Hernández ended up kicking the ball toward center field, as Meadows raced home with the tying run.

After the Blue Jays were retired in their half of the seventh, the game moved to extra innings. Wilmer Font came in to pitch for Toronto, with a runner beginning the inning at second base. With one out, rising superstar Willy Adames drilled the first pitch he saw from Font over the right-center-field fence for a two-run home run, and a 7-5 Rays lead.

Aaron Slegers came in to pitch the ninth for the Rays. He retired Toronto in order and ended a miserable day for the Blue Jays in which they lost two games and their starting shortstop.

Aaron Loup, a former Bisons reliever, earned the win after working a shutout seventh inning. The lefty improved to 3-0 after also earning the win in the earlier game, when he faced two batters and retired them both.

Out of 11 losses for the Blue Jays, it was their seventh that came in the game’s final inning. It was also their fourth loss in five extra-inning games. The new extra-innings rule that placed a runner at second base to start the inning had not been kind to Toronto. Anthony Alford said he understood the need for the rule in the abbreviated 60-game schedule to help shorten games and save pitchers’ arms. “I think for this year, I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” said Alford, who experienced the rule when playing in Buffalo and often acts as a pinch-runner for Toronto in extra innings, “but moving forward after this, I think baseball should just be baseball in the big leagues, and just play it normal.”

The disappointing afternoon ended the Blue Jays first home stand at Sahlen Field. The team headed to Baltimore to play a three-game set with the Orioles, before returning to Buffalo for a twin bill with the Phillies.

Game 6 at Sahlen Field, August 20, 2020: Toronto Blue Jays 3, Philadelphia Phillies 2

The Blue Jays returned to Sahlen Field to face the Philadelphia Phillies in a doubleheader, after Toronto swept a three-game series from the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. The twin bill with the Phillies was to make up Blue Jays “home” games that were supposed to be played in Philadelphia in early August, when Sahlen Field was still undergoing its transformation. The series in Philadelphia had to be postponed due to the Phillies being exposed to the Miami Marlins when they had their Covid-19 outbreak. Due to the new rules for the shortened season, both games of the doubleheader were scheduled 7-inning contests. It would be the Phillies first regular-season game in the Queen City since September 19, 1885, when they beat the National League Bisons 12-2 at Buffalo’s Olympic Park.

The first game didn’t start out well for the Blue Jays. After striking out the first two batters, Chase Anderson gave up a solo home run to Bryce Harper. In the third inning, Phillies speedster Roman Quinn beat out an infield single, stole second, and scored on Andrew McCutchen’s single to put the Phillies up 2-0.

Anderson hit Didi Gregorius with a pitch with one out in the fourth inning, and then gave up a single to Phil Gosselin. After 78 pitches the veteran right-hander turned the ball over to reliever Julian Merryweather. Merryweather would be making his major-league debut. He was acquired by Toronto when they traded Josh Donaldson to Cleveland in 2018. However, he’d only pitched in two minor-league games due to injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2018. “To finally take that jog out there to the mound, I mean so many emotions, so many thoughts come into my head,” Merryweather said. “But once I got out there I was just really locked into the game and not letting any of that affect me. Definitely the biggest adrenalin rush of my life.”

Merryweather struck out the first batter he faced in the major leagues, Alec Bohm, to end the inning. After Santiago Espinal’s sacrifice fly cut Toronto’s deficit to 2-1, Merryweather returned to the mound and worked a scoreless fifth inning, allowing a single to McCutchen, while striking out two more batters. “Be aggressive,” Merryweather said of his game plan. “Attack the zone. So I was really throwing everything as hard as I could to be honest.” His strategy worked through the 1 1/3 innings of his scoreless debut.

Billy McKinney, who was activated by the Blue Jays earlier in the day as their extra player for the doubleheader, singled to lead off the Blue Jays half of the sixth inning. He advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt, and moved to third on a ground out, before scoring to tie the game when Cavan Biggio drove a ball over Harper’s head in right field for a double.

Toronto’s bullpen did a solid job after Merryweather’s stellar performance. Wilmer Font hurled a scoreless inning, and Jordan Romano was completely dominant in the seventh inning, striking out Brohm, Quinn, and McCutchen.

Teoscar Hernández singled on a line-drive to left field with one out in the bottom of the seventh and final inning. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. kept things going with a blooper into center that Hernández was able to scamper to third on when Quinn momentarily bobbled the ball. With runners at the corners and one out, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. chopped a ball over Bohm’s head at third base, and Hernández raced home to give the Blue Jays a 3-2 walk-off win.

It was Toronto’s fourth consecutive win and their second walk-off win at Sahlen Field. But they had little time to celebrate, as the second game of the doubleheader was only about 30 minutes away.

Game 7 at Sahlen Field, August 20, 2020: Toronto Blue Jays 9, Philadelphia Phillies 8

If the first game of the doubleheader didn’t start out ideally for the Blue Jays, the second game started as a complete disaster. Trent Thornton, making his first start of the season after being on the injured list with elbow inflammation, wasn’t able to make it out of the first inning. In a nightmare start to the game, he allowed five hits, a walk, and hit a batter. “It was like three bloops in a row,” Charlie Montoyo said. “Three bloop single in a row and kind of tough luck. Then he walked a guy, and then there was a good line drive, but he ended up throwing way to many pitches, so we had to take him out.”

The Blue Jays were forced to reach into an already taxed bullpen in a stretch where they had to play 28 games in 27 days. Thornton was replaced by Jacob Waguespack with just two outs in the game. When all was said and done, the Phillies had a 7-0 lead after just half an inning.

Teoscar Hernández launched a two-run home run to deep left-center field in the Blue Jays’ half of the first to cut the lead to 7-2. “The whole time the bench was saying ‘guys we can come back’,” Montoyo said. “As funny as that sounds, they really were thinking we have a chance… The guys were, still believing the whole time even though we were down 7-0.”

The Blue Jays bullpen was lights out for the rest of the day. After allowing a run in the first inning, Waguespack worked two more scoreless frames. Shun Yamaguchi followed, working 2.2 hitless innings.

Phillies right-hander Vince Velasquez settled in after he allowed the home run to Hernández in the first. However, the wheels came off for him and the Phillies bullpen in the sixth inning. Rowdy Tellez led off the inning with a 429-foot blast into the right-field parking lot, to cut the Phillies’ lead to 7-3. The ball left Tellez’s bat at an incredible 117.4 mph, the hardest hit ball by a Blue Jay in the Statcast era. It was Tellez’s second home run into the parking lot at Sahlen Field with the Blue Jays, and third of his career, having done so once in 2019 with the Bisons. He became the only player ever to accomplish the feat three times.

Teoscar Hernández then lined a single to right-center, bringing an end to Velasquez’s day, as Phillies manager Joe Girardi pulled him in favor of the Phillies much-beleaguered bullpen. Connor Brogdan entered the game and walked the first batter he faced, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The next batter, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., drilled a towering three-run home run to left-center field to bring the Blue Jays to within a run at 7-6.

Brogdan was able to get Joe Panik to hit a groundball to second for the first out of the inning. Girardi then made another mound visit and called in hard-throwing closer Hecter Neris from the Phillies bullpen.

Neris induced Danny Jansen to hit a groundball to the shortstop side of second base. Second baseman Scott Kingery, who was shifted to that side of the infield, backhanded the ball but threw wildly to first, allowing the Blue Jays catcher to reach safely. Neris struck out Shaw for the second out and then got two quick strikes on Cavan Biggio. But Toronto’s pesky leadoff hitter battled back to earn a six-pitch walk. Randal Grichuk then hit a routine groundball to Didi Gregorius, but the normally sure-handed shortstop was unable to field the ball cleanly, and all hands were safe to load the bases.

Up to the plate stepped Rowdy Tellez, who’d started the inning off with a mammoth home run. Neris uncorked a wild pitch that Jansen raced home on, his head-first slide beating the tag of a diving J.T. Realmuto, who’d fielded the ball after it ricocheted off the backstop. After a replay review the umpires confirmed Jansen had beaten the tag and the Blue Jays had come all the way back to tie the game 7-7.

“They gave me the whole left-side of the field to work with,” Tellez said of his approach to his at-bat. “I was looking for something out over the plate, just not trying to do too much, not trying to hit the ball a mile. Just trying to hit something through the hole and drive in a couple runs. I was fortunate enough that the ball got by the catcher and Jano ended up scoring. That kind of relieved some of the pressure, not having to worry about trying to tie the game up.” Tellez was able to bloop a single to left-center to bring home two runs and the Blue Jays took a lead 9-7. “I ended up kind of swinging at a bad pitch and luck of the draw it ended up falling in. That’s the game of baseball.”

Girardi then called on Reggie McClain to try to bring an end to a catastrophic inning for the Phillies bullpen. McClain issued a four-pitch walk to Hernández, before Guerrero lined a ball sharply into leftfield to once again load the bases. However, McClain was finally able to get Gurriel to ground out to short to end the inning. The Blue Jays epic seven-run inning, included five hits, two-home runs, three walks, two errors, and a costly wild pitch.

But Toronto still had to shut down the Phillies in the bottom of the seventh. Anthony Kay, who’d entered the game in the sixth to retire McCutcheon on a pop out to end the inning, stayed in to start the seventh. It appeared the lefty might breeze through the inning after he got Hoskins to pop out and Harper to flyout. However, Gregorius hit a sharp groundball that Panik couldn’t backhand. The Phillies shortstop was awarded an infield hit on the play. Bohm followed with a double off the base of the wall in right-center field, moving Gregorius third, and putting the tying run at second base.

Montoyo summoned A.J. Cole to try to get the final out and secure the Blue Jays come-from-behind win. “That’s all we had left,” Montoyo said of his gassed bullpen. “It was Kay and Cole there at the end.” J.T. Realmuto pinch-hit and lined a ball up the middle that Cole deflected toward first, but neither he nor Tellez were able to make a play. Gregorius scored on the play to cut Toronto’s lead to one, and Bohm, the potential tying run, moved to third. Cole then struck out Quinn on a 2-and-2 pitch to finish the ballgame.

According to ESPN, the Blue Jays became the first team since the Red Sox against Cleveland on September 21, 2000 to rally from seven or more runs down in the first inning to win the game. Despite the large deficit early on, Montoyo said the team always believed they could come back. On playing at Sahlen Field, Montoyo said: “It’s almost like it’s our home now and we think we’re always going to have a chance to come back in games. The guys feel comfortable here.”

The two dramatic wins gave the Blue Jays five straight victories since their hottest hitter, Bo Bichette, went out with an injured his knee. The doubleheader sweep also moved the Blue Jays past the Orioles into the final American League playoff spot about a third of the way into the season. “It was kind of a huge blow to a lot of guys, the whole team, staff, and everybody with Bo going down,” said Tellez. “He’s kind of our leader, our guy who everybody turned to. He’s the guy. He’s the guy we ride every night to carry us.” He added, “It was a tough blow, but we’re holding our own. We’re playing well. If we can do this without him, I can’t imagine what we can do with him.”

Game 8 at Sahlen Field, August 25, 2020: Boston Red Sox 9, Toronto Blue Jays 7

The Boston Red Sox three-game series with the Blue Jays was their first trip to Buffalo since July 6, 1917, when they defeated the Bisons in an exhibition game 9-7. Boston was off to a slow start, with a 9-20 record, sitting dead last in the A.L. East. The Blue Jays returned to Sahlen Field after splitting a four-game series in Tampa. Toronto was just a half game ahead of the Orioles for the final American League playoff spot with a 14-13 record, as their 60-game season approached its midpoint. Toronto sent veteran Chase Anderson to the mound to take on Boston's rookie left-hander Kyle Hart, who was making just his third major-league start.

The game was really a tale of two innings, with the Blue Jays jumping out to a quick lead in the first inning and the Red Sox answering back, and then some, with a big sixth inning.

The Big Board at Sahlen Field.

Anderson retired the Red Sox in order to start the game. Cavan Biggio got things started for the Blue Jays,when he grounded a single through the left side of the infield to lead off the bottom of the first. Randall Grichuk followed with a single. After Vladimir Guerrero Jr. lined out to center field, Teoscar Hernández walked to load the bases. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. then doubled off the base of the wall in right to bring home the first two runs of the game. Hart retired Travis Shaw on a pop up, but Danny Jansen grounded a ball between third and short to bring home two more runs, putting the Blue Jays out in front 4-0.

Toronto appeared to have Hart on the ropes in the second, when they loaded the bases with one out. However, the lefty was able to get Guerrero to ground into a 6-4-3 double play and escape the inning without any further damage.

In the second inning, Xander Bogaerts doubled deep to left-center field, and Mitch Moreland grounded a single up the middle to cut Toronto’s lead to 4-1.

Bogaerts triggered another Red Sox rally in the fourth inning, when he singled to lead off the frame. Moreland belted a double that one hopped the wall in right-center to bring home Bogaerts. Moreland remained at second after back-to-back ground outs to third, but was able to advance to third on a passed ball due to some miscommunication between Anderson and Jansen. “I thought I saw fastball, but he said he put a different finger down for, I think it was a curveball actually.” Anderson said. “So that’s on me for sure. That’s not his fault. That’s why I kept stepping off, because it’s hard to see here in Buffalo. Behind home plate it’s a little bit darker, so I make sure I step off to make sure we’re 100 percent on the same page, because you never want that to happen and cost you a run, that’s for sure.” Jackie Bradley Jr. lined the next pitch up the middle. Shortstop Santiago Espinal, who was shifted to the right-side of the infield, backhanded the ball on one bounce and fired to first. Bradley was originally ruled out, but after an instant-replay review, Bradley was called safe, and the run scored to cut the Blue Jays lead to 4-3.

Espinal reached on a bunt single with one out in the fourth inning. After Biggio walked, Hart was removed from the game in favor of reliever Phillips Valdez. Valdez was able to get Drury to groundout to short for the second out of the inning, but both runners advanced on the play. Guerrero atoned for his double play in the second, by hitting a sharp grounder past Rafael Devers at third, to bring home two more runs, and put the Blue Jays up 6-3.

Things fell apart for the Blue Jays in the sixth inning. Anderson walked Moreland to start the inning. “I knew Moreland was one of the guys that was kind of seeing me well tonight, so I was trying to pitch a little bit around him to try to get some weak contact on the edges,” Anderson said. “But I ended up walking him and I was close to my pitch count. I think 90-95 and I ended up with 83 or maybe 84, so I was getting close.” Charlie Montoyo brought in reliever Wilmer Font to face Christian Vázquez. Vázquez greeted Font by drilling a ball that short hopped the 404’ sign in center field for a double. Font got Pillar to pop out, but Bradley grounded a single up the middle to bring home a run. José Peraza was hit by an 0-and-2 pitch to load the bases. Alex Vedugo hit a sharp grounder into right field to bring home Vásquez, and cut the Blue Jays lead to one.

A.J. Cole came in from the Toronto bullpen to face Devers with the bases still loaded and only one out. Cole got ahead in the count 0-and-2, before Devers was able to work count full. He then lined a ball sharply down the right-field line. Three runs came home as Devers raced into third with a stand-up triple, and Boston had an 8-6 lead. J.D. Martinez brought Devers home on a sacrifice fly to increase the Red Sox lead. After Bogaerts singled, Cole was finally able to get Moreland to pop out to end the inning, but not before Boston had scored six runs on five hits, a walk, a hit batsman, and a sac-fly, to take a 9-6 lead.

Boston’s bullpen shut the Blue Jays down until the ninth inning, when Teoscar Hernández launched a solo home run to make the score 9-7. It was Hernández’s 11th home run of the season, tying him with José Abreau and Nelson Cruz for the American League lead. Joe Panik, who entered the game when Shaw left with right-knee soreness, singled with two outs to bring the tying run to the plate. However, Red Sox closer Matt Barnes was able to strike out pinch-hitter Rowdy Tellez to end the game.

The 9-7 win for the Red Sox was the same score they’d beaten the Bisons by in 1917. The parallel score provided a bookend to the team’s first appearance in the Queen City in 103 years.

To be continued in our book Blue Jays in Buffalo which will be available in 2021.

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