On Sunday, October 9th, the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Texas Rangers 7-6 in a ten-inning thriller, taking the best-of-five American League Division Series (ALDS) in three straight games. The big bats finally broke out after a torrid September and a nail-biting, extra-innings wild card victory over division rival Baltimore Orioles just last Tuesday at Rogers Centre. Their ALDS matchup against the American League regular season leaders began Thursday, and they haven’t looked back since. The Jays have four days to rest and reset before facing the winner of the Cleveland-Boston ALDS (Cleveland leads 2-0) on the road in game 1 of the American League Championship Series (ALCS). The winner of the ALCS moves on the World Series to play the National League (NLCS) Champs. While we wait for Friday to arrive, let’s take a moment to reflect, re-group, and examine the challenges ahead.
The Jays began the series in style, hammering Cole Hamels and the Texas Rangers 10-1 in the opener. 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson led the way with a pair of singles and doubles. Troy Tulowitzki (Tulo) added a bases-clearing triple, and Jose Bautista hit a home run despite the boo birds, and had four runs batted in on the night. Starter Marco Estrada pitched a gem, coming up just two outs short of a complete game. Manager John Gibbons will be looking to Estrada to put up a similar performance against likely opponent Cleveland Indians next week.
The Rangers sent their next ace Yu Darvish to start game 2. Darvish fared no better than Hamels, allowing a career-high of three home runs in the fifth inning and four in five innings for a total of five earned runs. Tulo, Ezquiel Carrera, Kevin Pillar, and Edwin Encarcacion were the culprits, spelling a hellish end to Darvish’s night. Starter J. A. Happ did not have his best outing, with Texas runners reaching base in all but one of his five innings. Nevertheless, the potential Cy Young nominee pitched his way out of trouble every time, and was charged with only one earned run. Things got tense in the eighth, when Texas leadoff man Carlos Gomez hit a zinger off Jays’ reliever Francisco Liriano’s head, scoring Mitch Moreland and moving Jared Hoying to third while bringing the score to 5-2. Liriano was removed from the game, and would later be clear to travel to Toronto with the team. It is presently unknown whether the lefty will be available for the ALCS. As a result, youngster Roberto Osuna had to come in to get the final couple outs in the eighth. Texas would score a third run on a fielder’s choice but that would be all as Osuna went on to pick up the save in a scoreless ninth.
Facing a do-or-die situation in Toronto with American league ERA leader Aaron Sanchez on the mound, the Texas Rangers were in tough in game 3. Having burned their premiere starters in the first two games, game 3 starter Colby Lewis knew he didn’t stand a chance against this suddenly re-awakened homer-hammering ball club. Lewis barely lasted into the third inning as the Jays knocked him for five earned runs with a couple of homers courtesy of Encarnacion and Russell Martin in the first. Sanchez had issues with his command all night, giving six earned runs in five plus innings. Jays reliever Joe Biagini couldn’t stop the bleeding, as his first batter went on to score the sixth Texas run.
With the score tied up at six apiece, it was a tense few innings for both teams. The Rangers, having gone through most of their relief corps, brought in flamethrower Matt Bush in the eighth. Bush blew his 99 mph fastball by the Jays in the eighth and ninth, stifling the Jays’ big chance to walk-off the Rangers in regulation. Meanwhile, Osuna was once again called on for two innings. With no one left in the ‘pen after Osuna, Gibbons was banking on his big boys coming through in the tenth. Sure enough, Josh Donaldson made contact with a Bush fastball, getting to second base with one out. Bush walked Encarnacion to set up the double play. Bautista however would not deliver his usual hit-into-DP service, instead striking out on yet another 98 mph fastball. This brought catcher Russell Martin back to the plate. Martin hit a grounder to short in what could have easily been a double play, were it not for a bad throw from infamous Texas second baseman Rougned Odor. Martin ran it out while Josh Donaldson scampered home to score the winning run on a head-first slide. The play at the plate was not even close as the Jays dugout cleared and Rogers Centre erupted—the Jays were headed back to the ALCS for the second straight year!
ALCS: The Look-ahead
This Friday the Jays will likely travel to Cleveland to take on team president Mark Shapiro’s old buddies, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians disposed of the Boston Red Sox 6-0 in game 2, clobbering ace and former Jay David Price for four runs in the second inning. Game 1 was much closer, wherein the Indians edged Boston 5-4. Nevertheless, the Indians have gotten superb pitching from their starters combined with consistent hitting output. Jays starters will need to be on their game, ideally going at least six innings. The Indians acquired killer closer Andrew Miller from the Yanks before the all-star break, and guess what, he isn’t even the closer. These guys are that stacked.
The Jays will need to do their homework and hit up starting pitching early in order to advance. A tall task, but not impossible. They are a wicked lineup all the way through the order, especially if they get second baseman Devon Travis back from a tender knee injury to lead off.
Marcus Stroman will likely get the nod for the Jays in game 1. Estrada, Happ and Sanchez will likely fill out the rest of the starting rotation, while Liriano (if cleared) would presumably be available out of the bullpen to pitch multiple innings if necessary.
The key relievers, Biagini, Grilli, and Osuna, will be leaned on heavily. Gibbons will have to be extra careful with the bullpen: putting Ryan Tepera in for an inning when the score is 10-1 is a little different from the typical postseason save situation. Brett Cecil could stand to bring a little extra, and will likely be called upon to handle a couple of lefties (though Cleveland does have a lot of switch hitters…). Whatever happens, Cecil must not walk batters as he did in the Wild Card and ALDS.
Overall, the Jays have their work cut out for them. The ALCS is a best-of-seven series. Games 1 and 2 will be played at Cleveland/Boston, and games 3 and 4 will be played in Toronto. Cleveland/Boston hold home field advantage, with games 5 and 7 to be played there, if necessary. A game 6 would be played in Toronto. The winner of the ALCS will have home field advantage in the World Series, following the AL victory over the NL in the All-Star game this year. The Birdwatch continues! Hold on Jays fans, it’s going to be a hell of a ride!!!