Sometimes, Ron Burgundy says it best.
Blue Jays fans will not be looking back on Game 4 of the 2015 ALCS with any kind regard. The Royals annihilated them, opening the wounds with a 4-run first inning and chasing starter R.A. Dickey in the 2nd, leaving Toronto to try and stop the bleeding with a compromised, exhausted bullpen. With the unhittable Brett Cecil out of the lineup due to a bad-luck calf injury suffered in the ALDS, and Aaron Loup out of the country attending to a family matter, the Jays were left with precious few options as Kansas City turned Dickey’s usually ferocious knuckleball into knuckle sandwiches aimed squarely in Toronto’s collective face. Aussie Liam Hendriks pitched arguably the best game of his life, giving the Jays over four innings of scoreless relief, but he’s not a long man and with presumably fingers tightly crossed, manager John Gibbons had to turn to the erratic LaTroy Hawkins and the overwhelmed Ryan Tepera, who together let KC’s 5-2 lead transform into a 12-2 blowout. It got so bad that Gibbons had to use Mark Lowe, who he’d hoped to give the day off, and finally, in a record-setting act of desperation, infielder Cliff Pennington, who watched two more runs come in before the humiliation came to an end. It was, put simply, the most agonizing game the Blue Jays have played all season long, and as Royal after Royal crossed the plate one wondered if it would not have been better for the Jays to simply throw up their hands and forfeit. In either case, the Blue Jays are now down to the wire, behind 3 games to 1, and today’s game will either mark the start of a tremendous, unheard-of turnaround, or bluntly, the ignominious end of an otherwise remarkable season.
Should today prove to be the finale of the Blue Jays’ 2015 postseason hopes, it comes as a valuable guidepost for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to assemble his 2016 squad. The problem, as has so frequently been the case for the Blue Jays, is their pitching staff. You saw this in the first half of the season, before the acquisition of David Price, as the Jays tried out new arm after new arm in the starting rotation only to see their up-and-comers get destroyed by opposition bats. The irony is, and despite their struggles, from a statistical perspective the 4-man postseason starting rotation is as good as you could hope: Price, Stroman, Estrada, and Dickey. I’d even argue that the Jays starters are on balance better than the Royals’. However, it’s been made clear that the Royals bullpen phenomenally outmatches the Jays. Toronto hasn’t been able to score on them, whereas the Royals have been all over the Jays relievers, even dinging the otherwise reliable closer Roberto Osuna for a 2-run shot in the final moments of Game 3. Though the Blue Jays bats have been relatively quiet during the ALCS, they were unmatched throughout the 2015 season, and will likely grow even stronger as Troy Tulowitzki recovers from his shoulder injury (we’ve seen signs of his potential with his two post-season 3-run homers). They need to shore up their pitching, pure and simple.
There’s been a lot of talk as to whether the Blue Jays will be able to keep free agent David Price, when every wealthy baseball payroll will be coming after him aggressively. For what it’s worth, he seems to truly enjoy playing in Toronto, and he’s certainly become a fan favorite in his two-plus months with them. Let’s be optimistic and say the Jays are able to re-sign him, and let’s be even more optimistic and say they are able to keep Estrada as well. The offense really doesn’t need to be improved. That leaves the bullpen, and hoo boy, does it need help. Game 4 made the holes in it very plain. Since LaTroy Hawkins is planning to retire and there’s every chance that Mark Buehrle will as well, that frees up some space there. The Jays can turn former starter Drew Hutchison into a long reliever, in the mold of Bill Caudill or Mark Eichhorn from their 80’s iteration – make him into a guy who can come into a game in an emergency in the second and pitch you into the seventh, or they can sign a starter from another team specifically for that role. Ryan Tepera, for whom one felt nothing but sympathy yesterday, clearly needs more fine-tuning and should head back to the minors. And while whatever is happening with Aaron Loup’s family is obviously very serious and not his fault, the truth is he’s never been a solid performer and the Jays need to fill his spot on the roster with a much more reliable, hard-throwing lefty – someone like the Texas Rangers’ Jake Diekman, who can blast batters with 97, 98 mph fastballs for one or two innings (and was something of a nemesis for the Jays’ bats in the ALDS). And finally, Brett Cecil needs to watch his damn legs. The Blue Jays need an even balance of hard-throwing lefty and righty arms, so that they never find themselves again in a situation like now, where they are undermined by injuries and random chance.
While the playoffs have been going on, the Jays quietly signed switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, who should prove interesting to watch assuming he makes the team next season. The long and the short of it is that a bullpen with the caliber approaching that shown by Kansas City will make the difference between the team the Jays are right now and a team that can utterly dominate the league next year. (Of course, this is all me doing my Monday-morning quarterbacking routine – pardon the mixed sports metaphor – and one would assume that Anthopoulos and incoming President Mark Shapiro are well aware of where their team’s weaknesses lie. Hopefully Rogers gives them the money they need to make the moves they have to.)
What’s left for us fans then, as our boys in blue once again look down the barrel of elimination? Pennington provided a lonely moment of joy for the dejected Jays in the dugout and the fans who bothered to stick around to the end by nailing his first fastball for a 91-mph called strike. Estrada, who goes back to the mound today against Edinson Volquez (the notorious Donaldson-beaner who blanked the Blue Jays in Game 1), was uneven in his first outing but has the capacity to be dominant when he’s on – witness his salvation of the Blue Jays in ALDS Game 3. He’ll need to be. And Jose Bautista needs to Hulk out and start blasting some balls into the stratosphere. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the Royals might be tempted to lay off a bit today and let the Jays force a Game 6 so they can win the series at Kauffman Stadium in front of their own fans. But as anyone who follows the sport can tell you, the baseball gods are often fickle, and as good as Kansas City has been thus far, there is every possibility that they might just go completely off the rails now (recall that the Houston Astros almost eliminated them just a week or so ago), and give the Blue Jays the chance – with Price and Stroman slated for Games 6 and 7, if they happen – to come back from the brink, just as the Royals themselves did in 1985 against this very same team. It’s baseball; anything can happen.
If this is it, well, the Toronto Blue Jays have nothing to be ashamed of. Eventually every wave comes up against rocks upon which it breaks, and the Blue Jays in 2015 went from a middling, undervalued team playing to barely 20,000 fans a game to undisputed, stadium-packing champions of the toughest division in baseball for the first time in 22 years, with every indication that they will continue to be contenders for years to come. Even if they fall short this time. Remember too that the Jays lost the ALCS in 1991 before roaring back to win their twin World Series titles in the following two years. There is every reason to hope that they can and will do it again. I’m not giving up on them yet. You?