Leafs’ playoff run thrills the Pits
By R.S. Konjek
It was an unexpected trip. All summer long on the parched slopes of Christie Pits, we watched the Leafs play. They would win one, then lose one. Win another, and then lose another. Inconsistency was their only constant.
They were biding their time, and turned that bounce-back approach into a winning formula for the playoffs.
Toronto falls short in championship series, but the future looks bright.
The post-season Leafs — who stepped it up and played each game like grinders — were there all along, hidden in plain sight like the Zodiac Killer. I see you, Ted Cruz.
During their playoff run through August and September, they knocked out two higher-ranked teams and played for the league championship. Most impressive about that is that the club lost several players as the post-season got under way. Players departed for college or for other reasons, leaving both the bench and the bullpen short.
Marek Deska was one of four pitchers who carried the burden of starting, relieving, and closing out games.
“We just took it one game at a time and did our best to give our team a chance to win,” he said. “Many of us were pitching on short rest which was frustrating at times, but we managed and pulled off a pretty good playoff run.”
“Everybody had to step up,” echoed Leafs first baseman Jon Waltenbury.
Toronto faced the Brantford Red Sox in the quarterfinals.
The Sox sought revenge after being eliminated by the Leafs in the 2015 playoffs. This year’s quarterfinal went the full seven games and dragged on for over two weeks because of rain delays. Deska credited the rainouts for saving his arm and those of his fellow starters, Justin Cicatello, Brett van Pelt, and Mike Wagner.
Game seven in Brantford was a low-scoring nail-biter. The Leafs came back to win 4-2 in 10 innings. Designated hitter Sean Mattson drove in the winning run that sent the Leafs to the semifinals.
Toronto’s semifinal opponents were the London Majors, the league’s top ranked team.
The Majors won the first two games of the series, and it looked as if they would enjoy a calm, dignified procession to the championship.
“London was a grind,” Deska said. “The driving and getting home late took a toll on the entire team.”
The Leafs grabbed a late win in game three, won a wild game four, and battled the Majors all the way to another game seven.
“It was brutal,” said Leafs third baseman Johnathan Solazzo. “Being down 2-0 right off the start with all the drama that happened…but the way we won game seven and to be a part of that [left me] speechless.”
The drama Solazzo referred to was an incident he was involved in during game four at Christie Pits. Midway through the game, a London baserunner slid hard into Solazzo at third. Both players jumped up and stood eye to eye, challenging one another. Words were exchanged, which led to shoving, and both teams spilled out onto the field. No punches were thrown, but the Majors claimed that a racial slur was directed toward one of their players during the skirmish.
The game was delayed for an hour as London protested the incident. They eventually returned to the field and the Leafs won that heated affair.
The series came down to a deciding match on the road. There, it was outfielder Grant Tamane’s turn to play the hero. Tamane hit a game-winning home run in the ninth inning to stun London and punch Toronto’s ticket to the championship series.
In the finals, Toronto faced the league’s two-time defending champions, the Barrie Baycats.
The Leafs battled hard, but they fell short. The Baycats were able to score late in four straight games, and they swept the Leafs for their third straight title.
It was Toronto’s first championship series appearance since 2007, and the team continues on an upward trajectory.
Could they win it all next year?
“We just need a few more arms to even out the workload on our staff, and we’ve got to be tighter on defence,” Waltenbury said.
“We’ve got the right mix of guys and the right mindset. Even though Barrie beat us in four games, we had an opportunity to win every single one of those games.”
The 2016 Leafs came within four games of winning another title. Fans can take heart over the coming winter that those four wins — and a championship — might be within reach next year.
The Maple Leafs will return in May 2017 for their 49th season of baseball at Christie Pits.
SPORTS: Baseball Leafs head to the playoffs with high hopes (August 2016)
SPORTS: Christie comebacks and walk-offs (July 2016)
SPORTS: Leafs ahead 3-1 after first four games of the season (June 2016)
SPORTS: The bats are back at Christie Pits (May 2016)
NEWS: Second phase of park revitalization to begin (May 2016)
NEWS: Christie Pits renewal set to begin (July 2015)