Without 29-year-old Venezuelan journeyman Ezequiel Carrera, the Toronto Blue Jays might be watching the MLB playoffs from home by now.
A slew of names can be slotted in to Carrera’s spot without changing the accuracy of that statement, but Carrera’s is the most surprising, and therein lies his October value to the Blue Jays.
In the playoffs, every team is good. Favourites and underdogs make for a fine narrative, but when a 30-team league is narrowed down to eight, the playing field levels dramatically. For every Edwin Encarnacion, an opponent counters with an Adrian Beltre. For every Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ there is a Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish at the front of a series rotation. These playoff teams have, in most cases, loaded up for a deep run. Star power is not an issue.
Often times, the separating factor is someone like Ezequiel Carrera.
The excuse that a player is only having success in a small sample size goes out the window come playoff time. If a player hits .400 with three home runs in a series, they are Hank Aaron. If a reliever escapes a bases-loaded jam to hold a lead, they are Mariano Rivera. At least for the moment that matters.
Carrera was again thrust into a starting role late this season as manager John Gibbons began to tinker with the defensive look of his outfield, preferring the speed of a Carrera or Melvin Upton Jr. over Michael Saunders or Jose Bautista when a predominantly fly ball pitcher was on the mound. To his credit, he responded, going 7-for-22 (.313) over the last two series against Baltimore and Boston.
In the American League Wild Card Game, Carrera kept the Blue Jays alive with an RBI single in the bottom of the fifth to bring home Pillar. That evened the game 2-2, a score that remained until Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the eleventh.
In the ALDS, Carrera opened the series against Texas by going 1-for-3 with a pair of walks and a run scored, then stepped up again on Friday afternoon with a solo home run out of the leadoff spot.
Relying on these performances to come consistently from Carrera may still be a fool’s game, but their immediate impact has added that “something else” the Blue Jays have needed to get over the hump against teams that, overall, are an even match. In that Wild Card against Baltimore the Orioles had signs of life at the plate from their big names of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Mark Trumbo, but the supporting cast was missing in action.
In a seven-game series, players like Bautista, Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin, Encarnacion and the pitching staff can often account for three wins themselves. It’s that fourth win, however, standing delicately on a tipping point and waiting for a nudge, where players like Carrera come surprisingly into play.