Kevin Pillar's gamble pays off as he steals home to seal Jays' win

TORONTO -- On the eve of Opening Day, Toronto Blue Jays speedsters Kevin Pillar and Curtis Granderson had a conversation about taking extreme base-running gambles.

They were discussing a spring-training video they had just seen of Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Lolo Sanchez and what it would take for them to one day replicate his jaw-dropping feat of stealing home from third base.

Little did Pillar and Granderson know, just a few days later, it would be Pillar's turn to wow and amaze. His clutch, game-defining steal of home Saturday helped clinch a 5-3 win over the division rival New York Yankees. It was the first straight steal of home by a Blue Jays player since May 2007, when Aaron Hill did it also against the Yankees.

"These are just things we talk about, and when the opportunity presents itself, you're prepared enough to go out and execute these things," Pillar said.

Pillar proved more than ready when he started hopping off third base as fellow Blue Jay Gift Ngoepe stood in with two strikes and two outs in the eighth inning and the Jays leading 4-3.

Moments before, Pillar, who reached base on a one-out single, had stolen second and third base against the often deliberate-to-the-plate Yankees reliever Dellin Betances.

As Betances got into his stretch windup while up two strikes on Ngoepe, an idea flashed into Pillar's head.

"I felt like they weren't holding me on. They were playing back," Pillar said. "They were playing to get the hitter out, and I got a pretty big walking lead.

"I started jumping up and down to see if I could get [Betances'] attention."

He did.

Said Betances: "I thought he was definitely trying to distract me."

Although Betances saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, his focus remained on home plate, where he was locked in on the signs catcher Gary Sanchez was flashing. The previous inning, Sanchez had thrown out Granderson at second base, as Toronto tried to get something going offensively in its first inning facing Betances.

Betances' next movement proved disastrous.

"When he comes set," Pillar said he told himself, "I'm going to gamble here."

As soon as Betances brought his hands from his sides up to his chest, Pillar took off for the plate at full sprint. Flustered, Betances tried to simultaneously step off the mound and throw the ball toward Sanchez. When he did, the ball skipped away past the catcher, and Pillar scored standing up. The crowd of 37,692 at Rogers Centre roared its approval.

"You could feel the energy in the stadium," Pillar said.

Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada, who was in the clubhouse getting treatment after his seven-inning outing, heard the raucous sounds above him while looking at a television.

"You could hear it, yeah. It's that loud," Estrada said. "Even in here you could still hear the fans cheering and stuff. It's just awesome to watch. You could see him at third base jumping around and you're really thinking, 'He might actually take this base.' "

Toronto manager John Gibbons said he wished he could have taken credit for sending the runner home in such a crucial spot, but that it was all Pillar.

"I've never seen anybody ever do it from the stretch [windup]. That's almost a no-no," Gibbons said. "But you could see him coming off third base, and you knew it didn't look normal. He did it.

"That's pretty cool."

When Pillar ran to the outfield moments later to play defense in the top of the ninth, he had another brief conversation with Granderson. Granderson told Pillar that was the first straight steal of home he had seen as a big leaguer.

Speed has been a staple of Pillar's play for the better part of the past four seasons. In his first full campaign in 2015, he stole 25 bases. His totals dropped across the next two seasons, causing him to make it his mission this past offseason to trim down in hopes of boosting his numbers again.

He won't be too upset if the stolen bases don't come, though. Pillar says he just hopes actions like Saturday's start to get opposing defenses thinking.

"We've got to find different ways to manufacture runs," Pillar said. "And it's not always going to be stealing bases, but it's putting the thought of stolen bases in the catcher and pitcher's mind."