If one was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays imagining the course of the 2016 American League Championship Series, the most ideal situation would not necessarily be rolling into Game 3 down two and needing to win four of the next five to move on to the big finale. The Cleveland Indians are sitting far more comfortably after their first two victories and five straight so far in their 2016 postseason. They can afford to absolutely tank the next few games confident that even in the Blue Jays’ most optimal outcome, this series will be decided on Cleveland’s home turf of Progressive Field by the end of this week, with a legion of red-clad fans on their feet for every strike hurled against an opposing batter.
No, not really what you want to see as a Toronto player or a fan, especially given the doses of playoff magic we’ve been treated to thus far: Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the wild card, Josh Donaldson’s faceplant walk-off slide into home in the ALDS. We want more of that to keep us sustained over the long winter to come. It’s crunch time now, backs against the wall, the importance of every at bat magnified by expectant eyes and television cameras. And yet, there is perhaps no team with as much potential to reverse this perilous course and claw its way back to a triumphant finale. Because this isn’t last year, when you had an essentially virgin playoff roster flailing to find its way against the more experienced and more clutch Kansas City Royals. And the losses to Cleveland thus far have contained more than a few silver linings to keep the faith going (as indeed, I had to be reminded of by my better half through more than a few grimaces and obscenities as I watched Game 2 slip away).
The consensus among sportswriters was that these were going to be low-scoring games as the pitching on both sides is elite. No argument there. But for one bad pitch each from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, these two games have entirely different outcomes. Bummer if you’re a Jays fan looking for a crucial win, obviously, but reassuring to know that we won’t likely be treated to a reprise of last year’s horrifying Game 4, when Toronto’s pitchers might as well have been tossing underhand tennis balls to Kansas City. Lost perhaps in the talk of the Blue Jays’ inability to scratch out hits with men in scoring position or indeed do anything but whiff against Cleveland’s Andrew Miller is the fact that those two errant home run balls have represented the sum total of Cleveland’s ability to score over these past two games. Estrada and Happ were largely lights out except for those couple of forgivable mistakes (which would have been meaningless had their offense supported them in the manner to which they became accustomed in the ALDS).
We didn’t need to use our bullpen in Game 1, but in Game 2, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna combined to silence Cleveland’s lineup over three innings as effectively as Miller, even if they weren’t doing it in as flashy a manner – a zero on the scoreboard is a zero, whether it’s by strikeouts or groundouts. And because Estrada was so solid in Game 1, those are the only two of our relievers that Cleveland has had to face. Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are all rested and ready to go when needed, and Cleveland doesn’t have much experience facing any of them. It is true that Osuna had begun to struggle a bit in the closing days of September, but when you recall that it was against AL East teams who’d seen him umpteen times throughout the season, it’s not surprising at all – and he’s been able to recoup his mojo quite handily in October against guys who haven’t had to face him in months.
On the Cleveland bullpen side, manager Terry Francona has relied exclusively on Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have combined to render the Blue Jays’ bats impotent. The danger with this approach is that the more times the Jays face Miller, the better they’ll be able to read what’s coming – and because Miller has thrown multiple innings each outing, everyone down the lineup has had a chance to see him. As good as Miller is, he’s not immortal, and he’s going to make a mistake at some point – or worse, become predictable. One of the most satisfying moments of last season’s drive was watching Dioner Navarro rip an “unhittable” Miller pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats, and something similar is inevitable during the course of this long series (the hand-wringing likely to result for Francona, along the lines of Buck Showalter’s criticism for not using Zach Britton in the wild card game, is amusing to contemplate).
I and a few others wondered if the long layoff between the sweep of Texas in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS might lead to the Blue Jays losing the crucial edge that had served them so handily starting with the final two games of the regular season at Fenway. When hitting is so much a matter of precision timing, any disruption in routine can trend it south, and while the Jays certainly used their well-earned downtime to continue training and practicing, lazy drills in an empty stadium simply don’t have the electricity needed to keep that edge sharp. Sinking into a must-win situation, however, does, and with Marcus Stroman coming to the mound tonight as he did for the wild card game, the ingredients have been assembled for a repeat breakout that will both knock Cleveland back on its heels and put our guys smack back in it.
It’s been the story of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season. They may look lost from time to time, but they’re never finished. To paraphrase Leo McGarry, we’ve been down here before, and we know the way out. It was punctuated, you may recall, by a particularly notorious flip of the bat.
That’s the hope, anyhow, as the playoffs are not notorious for providing a wealth of second chances, and a loss tonight could result in a lot of early obituaries for Toronto’s season. But it’s not as though the Blue Jays are being pounded into the dirt by a far superior team with no hope of recovery. The narrative has been simply that of one evenly matched team edging out the other by the narrowest of margins. That trend isn’t sustainable, and even though Cleveland’s offense is probably due to break out, one can’t see that happening under the blazing lights and deafening roars of the Rogers Centre. The odds have most definitely turned in our favor.
Former Jays utility player Munenori Kawasaki had a delightful quote last year about how his team would make its run: “Don’t thinking! Don’t don’t thinking. Just swing! Just catc…uh throw! Just catch. Don’t think everybody. Just win!” I can’t think of any better advice to my team than that.
Just win. You know how.
You’ve done it before.