PITTSBURGH — It was a feel-good weekend in one of the great ball parks in America, one in which Blue Jays fans greatly outnumbered supporters of the local nine.
PITTSBURGH — It was a feel-good weekend in one of the great ball parks in America, one in which Blue Jays fans greatly outnumbered supporters of the local nine.
A sweep was a bonus, a three-gamer capped off by a too-close-for-comfort 4-3 win over the Pirates here at PNC Park on Sunday afternoon. The results certainly provided a revved up start to the 10-game road trip, even if the sweep was against the miserable, 49-84 Bucs.
But now it’s about to get real, starting with a scheduled four games in three days series against the stubborn Orioles in Baltimore, beginning with a double dip on Monday.
Biggest series of the year? For now, anyway, let’s go with that.
“We know that every game is going to be like a playoff game and how valuable and important they are going to be, especially the four coming up against Baltimore,” Jays reliever Anthony Bass said on Sunday. “The Baltimore series is really going to set the tone for the rest of the way, especially because they’ve been playing so well lately.
“They’re right behind us and we have to bury them behind us. We have to win those games.”
They aren’t truly must-win games, of course, but they certainly will feel that way as the Jays enter the final 30 games of the campaign.
Ideally the Jays would be at the top of the wild-card race at worst by now, rather than holding down the third spot and only 1.5 games up on the O’s prior to Sunday’s action.
The incentive runs deep, starting with Bass’s accurate assertion that above all they need to take care of the plucky O’s. Ideally, the return to Maryland for a season-ending series in Baltimore in early October won’t be loaded with the pressure of securing a spot in the post-season dance.
“We know we are going up against a lot of really good teams in our division so we know that every game is going to be like a playoff game,” said Bass, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning on Sunday. “We try not to look too far ahead, but obviously we are going to write our own destiny here in the next week or two.”
Of the remaining 30 games on the Jays schedule, 19 are against the Orioles (10) and Rays (9), a pair of teams that could factor prominently in the Jays playoff picture.
Despite their uneven play at times, the Jays have won 12 of their past 17 and in finishing off their sixth sweep of the season and with a record of 73-59 are now a season-best 14 games over .500.
The challenge is that others in the AL wildcard race haven’t yielded, either. Entering Sunday’s play the Mariners had won eight of their previous nine and the Rays had taken 11 of 13.
Interim manager John Schneider’s approach is for his players to soak up the opportunity in front of them and play loose.
“Enjoying these moments and embracing the fact that this is why you play … that’s the biggest thing,” Schneider said. “They’ve been around each other long enough, for a handful of years and the guys who have come in I think they all get that. It’s a fun atmosphere.
“The more you can be in these spots … this is still a relatively young core … the better it is for them going forward.”
Quite clearly Schneider and his staff recognize the significance of the Baltimore series and manipulated the rotation accordingly. Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios are slated to get the start in Monday’s double header at Camden Yards followed by Mitch White and then Alek Manoah in Wednesday’s finale.
“Right now they realize they were in a playoff spot last year where they finished one game short,” said Schneider, whose team has now won nine of its past 10 on the road. “They know what we need to do to get a little bit better and we have an opportunity right now to write our own face with the schedule we’ve got coming up.”
They’ll bet to work on scribbling that story early on Monday afternoon for what the Jays hope will be their own version of a Labour Day Classic.
“Good teams take care of business,” Sunday’s starter, Ross Stripling said. “If we go into (Baltimore) and win three … that’s the motive.
“We understand we are the better team.”
The Jays got yet another solid outing from Sunday’s starter Ross Stripling, who allowed two hits and three runs over six innings. The right hander struck out eight while walking three … The Jays appeared to be cruising early, building a 3-0 lead through four, the biggest blow being a Cavan Biggio solo homer. But the Pirates chipped back into it with a pair of runs in the bottom half of the inning and then tied it with a solo homer from Oneil Cruz in the fourth … The Jays had a golden opportunity to grab a big lead in the sixth with the bases loaded and one out. But a meek ground ball into a double play by Whit Merrifield ended that threat … The eighth started with some promise as well, with singles from Danny Jansen and Matt Chapman before Vlad Guerrero Jr. grounded into a double play. But when Teoscar Hernandez slapped a single through a hole in the infield, the Jays took a 4-3 lead … The Jays had to dodge a bullet in the ninth when closer Jordan Romano allowed the first two batters to reach before striking out the next three batters to record his 30th save.
Sunday was a rest day for George Springer and Schneider went with Matt Chapman in the leadoff spot … He has some road to travel yet to return to the big leagues but Nate Pearson’s rehab took a nice step forward Sunday in Florida where he pitched a scoreless inning for the Dunedin Blue Jays. Pearson’s fastball was nudging 99 miles per hour … It appears that second baseman Santiago Espinal has survived the fastball he took to his left hand on Friday. Espinal wasn’t in the lineup on Sunday, but reported he had full movement in his hand … The travelling road show of Jays fans were well represented for the team’s first visit to this great sports town since 2014.
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – No matter how this series at the Toronto Blue Jays’ perennial hell-spot of Tropicana Field plays out, the wild-card picture won’t be any less muddled heading into the final week and a half of the regular season. The gap is simply too tight between them, the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners to rule out any scenarios for the time being, ensuring there’ll at minimum be some drama around who’s playing where, if not who’s getting in.
All of which makes holding tiebreakers so important, something the Blue Jays surrendered after a frustrating 10-6 loss Friday night left them 7-10 against the Rays this season and unable to catch up with only two more head-to-head meetings remaining.
A back-and-forth game was settled in the eighth when David Peralta lifted a fly ball to shallow right field and pinch-runner Taylor Walls charged home beneath a high and wide throw from Teoscar Hernandez to break a 6-6 tie. A Bo Bichette error on a Harold Ramirez grounder later in the inning led to another run before Randy Arozarena’s two-run single padded the edge.
Pete Fairbanks mopped up in the ninth as the Rays (84-67) tied the Blue Jays (84-67), losers of three straight, for top spot in the wild-card race, but they are essentially ahead by holding the tiebreaker. The Seattle Mariners (82-68), 5-1 losers at Kansas City, remain 1.5 games back.
“It’s weird here. Whenever things kind of don’t go great or perfectly, it seems to unravel,” said interim manager John Schneider, adding later: “Tonight was a perfect example of how you kind of play into their strengths. You can’t walk guys and expect good things to happen. You want to let them beat you with their bats and tonight we didn’t do that and didn’t take care of the ball particularly well.”
Under new rules this year, ties in the standings between two teams are broken by head-to-head play rather than a single-game, winner-takes-all contest. A three-team tiebreaker is decided by which team has the best combined winning percentage against the other two clubs.
The Rays are in the driver’s seat on both fronts, holding the edge over the Blue Jays and the Mariners (5-2) in two-team-tie scenarios, as well as holding the best cumulative mark if there’s a three-way deadlock. Seattle beat Toronto 5-2 and is locked into second under such a scenario.
Hence, the Blue Jays must be at least a game better than both rivals from here on out to secure home-field advantage, without the margin for error a tiebreaker provides.
That’s been compounded by a rough week that began with a blown save against the Baltimore Orioles last Sunday, followed by a messy 18-11 win Tuesday at Philadelphia before another missed chance against the Phillies in a 4-3, 10-inning loss Wednesday and a blowout loss Thursday to the Rays.
During that span the Blue Jays have gone from thinking about a possible run at the New York Yankees atop the AL East to maintaining homefield for the wild-card round.
Schneider talked about “putting each game in a vacuum one-by-one at this point,” something third baseman Matt Chapman, no stranger to the high-leverage tightrope, said is easier said than done.
“It’s hard every day to try not to dwell too much on what happened, what you could have done better,” Chapman explained. “At this time of year, everybody’s burnt a little bit. Everybody’s been grinding for a long time. To be the best player and best teammate you can be tomorrow is just to flush it and let it go. Everybody’s tired and it’s not going to do you any good trying to figure out why this happened or why you got pitched a certain way or why you didn’t make a play you should have made.
“Obviously, there are a couple of plays tonight that I wish I would have made and I’m pretty good at kicking myself for that,” he continued. “But I know that it doesn’t matter anymore and as much as I wish I did it differently, it’s like, hey, tomorrow, I’m going to get another opportunity to make a play for this team and help us win a game. That’s what I’m focused on and I know the guys are, too.”
The Blue Jays would have had to win three straight against the Rays to give themselves the tiebreaker beginning with a Friday game that featured the usual array of miseries that tend to plague them at the Trop.
Mitch White, recalled from triple-A Buffalo to start, got bled for a pair of runs in the first, with Wander Franco dropping a 77.3-m.p.h. double just inside the left-field line to set up a run-scoring groundout by Arozarena before a Manuel Margot bunt single plated a second run.
Christian Bethancourt’s RBI double in the fourth made it 3-0 but back-to-back doubles by Teoscar Hernandez and Raimel Tapia to open the fifth cut into the lead. Tapia then took third on a Whit Merrifield fly out to deep centre, Danny Jansen walked and after George Springer struck out, Bichette ripped an RBI single. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. then tied the game with a bouncer up the middle and Alejandro Kirk, under instructions to pick his spots running after missing time last week with left hip tightness, booted it up the line to beat out an errant Isaac Paredes throw to put the Blue Jays up 4-3.
Needing a shutdown inning in the bottom half, the Blue Jays pulled White for Tim Mayza, who struck out Jonathan Aranda before Harold Ramirez singled and Wander Franco walked. In came Anthony Bass and he got up 1-2 on Arozarena, who then slashed the fourth straight slider he saw over the wall in right field to put the Rays back up 6-4.
The Blue Jays tied it in the sixth on a Jansen RBI single and Springer sacrifice fly but Guerrero struck out with two on to end the frame and things stood there until the game unravelled on Yimi Garcia in the eighth, just as it did Wednesday in Philadelphia.
A Ji-Man Choi walk to open the inning started the trouble before Miles Mastrobuoni followed with a base hit that sent pinch-runner Walls to third. The shallow fly by Peralta followed and the Rays poured it on from there.
“I thought (Garcia) made great pitches to Choi,” said Schneider. “Really close 3-2 pitch, really close 2-2 pitch and you trust that you want the players to have the result of the outcome of the game in their hands. That happens sometimes.”
More than sometimes for the Blue Jays at the Trop, the baseball stadium with a warehouse-shopping-mall vibe Chapman diplomatically said is “an interesting place to play.”
“A little bit different – just different in every way,” he continued. “It’s kind of hard to put your finger on why it is different. I’ve obviously only come once a year until this year. But definitely it takes some adjusting, definitely takes some getting used to. But it’s a good team we are playing. They play well at their home field just like we do. When you’re on the road here, you know that you’re in for a tough game and you’ve got to find alternate ways to just win.”
Mantra for the moment for the Blue Jays.
This day, this match, had to come, of course, for Roger Federer, and for tennis, just as it inevitably must for every athlete in every sport.
Federer bid adieu Friday night with one last contest before he heads into retirement at age 41 after a superlative career that spanned nearly a quarter-century and included 20 Grand Slam titles and a statesman’s role. He wrapped up his days as a professional player with a loss in doubles alongside his longtime rival Rafael Nadal for Team Europe in the Laver Cup against Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock of Team World.
The truth is that the victors, the statistics and the score (OK, for the record it was 4-6, 7-6 (2), 11-9) did not matter, and were all so entirely beside the point. The occasion was, after all, about the farewell itself. Or, better, the farewells, plural: Federer’s to tennis, to the fans, to his competitors and colleagues. And, naturally, each of those entities’ farewells to Federer.
“It’s been a perfect journey,” Federer said. “I would do it all over again.”
When the match and, with it, his time in professional tennis ended, Federer hugged Nadal, then Tiafoe and Sock. And then Federer began crying. There were plenty of tears to go around; Nadal wiped his own away, too.
WATCH | Federer plays final point of career:
“When Roger leaves the tour, an important part of my life is leaving, too,” said Nadal, 36, who used the words “sad” and “unforgettable” to describe the occasion.
As cascades of clapping and yells of affection came from the stands, Federer put his hands on his hips, his chest heaving. Then he mouthed, “Thank you,” while applauding right back toward the spectators who had chanted, “Let’s go, Roger! Let’s go!” during the concluding moments of a match that lasted more than two hours and ended at about 12:30 a.m.
His wife, Mirka, their four children — twin girls and twin boys — and Federer’s parents joined him on the court afterward for embraces and, yes, more bawling. Members of both teams joined together to hoist Federer up in the air.
“It’s been a wonderful day. I told the guys I’m happy; I’m not sad,” Federer said. “I enjoyed tying my shoes one more time. Everything was the last time.”
The Swiss star announced last week that the three-day team event, which was founded by his management company, would be his final event before retirement, then made clear the doubles outing would be the last match. His surgically repaired right knee — the last of three operations came shortly after a loss in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in July 2021, which will go down as his official exit in singles — is in no shape to allow him to continue.
“For me, just personally, [it was] sad in the first moment, when I came to the conclusion it’s the best decision,” Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press this week about his emotions when realizing it was time to go. “I kind of held it in at first, then fought it off. But I could feel the pain.”
He had said he wanted this to feel more like a party than a funeral, and the crowd obliged, rising for a loud and lengthy standing ovation when Federer and Nadal — each wearing a white bandanna, blue shirt and white shorts — emerged together from a tunnel leading out to the black court for the last match on Day 1 at the O2 Arena. They remained on their feet for nearly 10 minutes, through the pre-match warmup, holding aloft phone cameras to capture the moment.
Please welcome to the black court, Team Europe’s <a href=”https://twitter.com/rogerfederer?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@rogerfederer</a> and <a href=”https://twitter.com/RafaelNadal?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@RafaelNadal</a>. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LaverCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LaverCup</a> <a href=”https://t.co/lnX3hOTMQc”>pic.twitter.com/lnX3hOTMQc</a>
They came ready to roar for him, some with Swiss flags, some with homemade signs (“Idol Forever” read one), and they made themselves heard with a wall of sound when Federer delivered a forehand volley winner on the match’s second point. Similar reactions arrived merely at the chair umpire’s announcement before the third game of “Roger Federer to serve,” and again when he closed that game with a 117 mph service winner.
Doubles requires far less movement and court coverage, of course, so the stress on Federer’s knee was limited Friday.
“Honestly,” he said, acknowledging that leading into the match there were the sorts of nerves he’d get before a Grand Slam final, “I was so surprised how well I was able to play tonight.”
He showed touches of his old flair, to be sure, and of rust, as to be expected.
There were a couple of early forehands that sailed several feet too long. There also was a forehand that slid right between Sock and Tiafoe and seemed too good to be true — and, it turned out, was: The ball traveled through a gap below the net tape and so the point was taken away from Federer and Nadal.
Although this match amounted to, essentially, a glorified exhibition, all four doubles participants played as if they wanted to win. That was clear when Sock, a three-time major champion in doubles who is 29, leaped and screamed after one particularly terrific volley or when Tiafoe, 24, sent a couple of shots right at Federer and Nadal.
There were moments of levity.
Federer and Nadal were able to laugh after a bit of confusion over which should go for a ball on a point they lost. After Nadal somehow flicked one back-to-the-net shot around the post, only for it to land barely wide, Tiafoe, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open, crossed over to extend a hand with congratulations for the effort.
In the first set, the older duo couldn’t quite hear each other between points, so Federer trotted from the net back to the baseline to consult with Nadal, then pointed to his ear to signal what the issue was.
Before Federer began winning Grand Slam titles in 2003, the men’s mark for most major tennis championships was 14 by Pete Sampras. Federer blew past that, accumulating eight at Wimbledon, six at the Australian Open, five at the U.S. Open and one at the French Open, setting a new standard that Nadal, now with 22, and Novak Djokovic, with 21, equaled, then surpassed, as part of a golden era for the sport.
If there’s one thing you watch today, make it this.<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LaverCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LaverCup</a> | <a href=”https://twitter.com/rogerfederer?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@rogerfederer</a> <a href=”https://t.co/Ks9JqEeR6B”>pic.twitter.com/Ks9JqEeR6B</a>
Surely, there are those who would have found it particularly apt to see Federer finish across the net from Nadal, often an on-court nemesis but eventually an off-court friend. Maybe it could have taken place about 15 miles away at Centre Court of the All England Club, say, or in Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, or Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park, or even Arthur Ashe Stadium, the centrepiece of the U.S. Open, the lone Grand Slam tournament at which they never faced off, somehow.
Perhaps they could have provided everyone with one final installment of a head-to-head matchup as memorable as any in the long history of their sport — or, indeed, any other.
Roger vs. Rafa — just one name apiece required — belongs up there with McEnroe vs. Borg (as it happens, the two Laver Cup team captains, John and Bjorn), Evert vs. Navratilova, Sampras vs. Agassi, Ali vs. Frazier, Magic vs. Bird, Brady vs. Manning, and so on.
And yet, there was an unmistakable element of poetry with these two men who challenged each other and elevated each other performing as partners, slapping palms and sharing smiles.
This goodbye follows that of Serena Williams, the owner of 23 major singles championships, at the U.S. Open three weeks ago after a third-round loss. It leaves questions about the future of a game he and she dominated, and transcended, for decades.
One key difference: Each time Williams took the court in New York, the looming question was how long her stay would endure — a “win or this is it” prospect.
Friday WAS it for Federer, no matter the result.
“All the players will miss him,” said Casper Ruud, who beat Sock in singles 6-4, 5-7, 10-7.
The day’s other results, which left Team Europe and Team World tied at 2-2: Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-2, 6-1 in a match interrupted briefly when an environmental protester lit a portion of the court and his own arm on fire, and Alex de Minaur got past Andy Murray 5-7, 6-3, 10-7.
Due to begin playing shortly after the end of Murray’s loss, Federer and Nadal first provided him with some coaching tips, then watched part of that one on TV together in a room at the arena, waiting for their turn. When Federer and Nadal were in action, it was Djokovic’s turn to suggest strategy.
heading to dinner with some friends <a href=”https://twitter.com/RafaelNadal?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@RafaelNadal</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/andy_murray?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@andy_murray</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/DjokerNole?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@DjokerNole</a> <a href=”https://t.co/2oYR3hnGaZ”>pic.twitter.com/2oYR3hnGaZ</a>
The last hurrah came after a total of 103 career singles trophies and 1,251 wins in singles matches for Federer, both second only to Jimmy Connors in the Open era, which began in 1968.
At the height of his powers, Federer appeared in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, winning eight, from 2005-07. Extend that to 2010, and he reached 18 of 19 major finals.
More than those numbers, folks will remember the powerful forehand, the one-handed backhand, the flawless footwork, the spectacularly effective serve and eagerness to get to the net, the willingness to reinvent aspects of his game and — the part of which he’s proudest — the unusual longevity. Beyond the elegance and effectiveness while wielding a racket, Federer’s persona made him an ambassador for tennis, someone whose immense popularity helped attract fans.
“This is not the end-end, you know. Life goes on. I’m healthy, I’m happy, everything’s great,” Federer said, “and this is just a moment in time.”
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