It’s hard to believe it’s only been four days since the Blue Jays walked off the Texas Rangers to earn their second straight trip to the American League Championship Series. The collective nerves of Toronto fans certainly merited a break, even if they won’t truly stop jangling until we see our guys clutching a champagne-soaked World Series trophy – or the undesired alternative. With a little over three hours to Corey Kluber’s first pitch of Game 1, those stomach-dwelling butterflies are beginning to flap their dreaded wings once more. Even though by all rights we have much more reason to be more confident about our prospects in this series than we did one year ago, watching our guys take the field at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. Our squad is experienced, battle-hardened and eager to conclude unfinished business, to propel the entire nation into a final showdown with either the Dodgers or the Cubs.
We got a taste of this last year, and how we are ever starving for it now.
I’m not the only one who isn’t terribly upset that we’re not facing the Boston Red Sox again. With the major league schedule calibrated to ensure that teams play the majority of their games against division rivals, it felt like Toronto was suiting up against those guys every week, and honestly, it was getting a bit wearying, especially given the excessive media spotlight on David Ortiz’s final season. Now that he is done and the Sox, swept efficiently to the curb by Cleveland, are looking to 2017, we don’t have to worry about Craig Kimbrel’s silly bent-over pitching stance, or Mookie Betts’ arrogant plate sneer, or Dustin Pedroia’s goofy stretchy-face, or John Farrell’s brooding dugout mug, or Fenway’s home-run stealing Green Monster, or any of those infuriating quirks spoiling the mood one last time. So long guys, see ya in April.
We can finally have – as the hashtag says – our moment.
Tonight, Marco Estrada goes up against Corey Kluber. I was at the game on July 3rd when the Jays hammered Kluber and his compatriots so badly, to the tune of 17-1, that manager Terry Francona was forced to have his catcher pitch the last few innings. Cleveland’s starting rotation has been thinned by season-ending injuries and the current plan is for Game 4 to be a “bullpen game,” with no qualified starter available to take the mound.
Toronto’s starters are another matter. Collectively, they are the best in the league. While neither J.A. Happ nor Aaron Sanchez were in their fighting form in the ALDS, they have had more games than not during the season when they pitched like aces, and stand every chance to do so again. Along with Marcus Stroman, whom nobody wanted to start the wild card game, and who fed off those doubts to throw the game of his life. As long as our guys keep hitting and running the bases like they have been, we have every chance to move on.
It feels like we deserve to move on.
Not that it will be easy. Both teams are undefeated in the postseason this year, and one of those streaks will end tonight. Despite a compromised pitching staff, Cleveland managed to hold the run-happy Red Sox at bay in three straight. They’re no pushovers, not by a long shot. They deserve to be here as much as we do. And if they manage to secure a World Series berth, no one will be able to say it wasn’t earned.
What gives me the most hope is that during the playoffs and even those last two games against Boston that secured home field advantage for the wild card, the Jays are playing the kind of baseball that the Royals used to defeat them last year – manufacturing runs from tiny hits, running hard, taking extra chances that pay off huge. Josh Donaldson’s walkoff dash on Sunday night was taken right from the same playbook that saw Lorenzo Cain score the winning run from first base in last year’s Game 6. That’s the kind of high-risk ball that can push a good team into the realm of greatness – when it works, of course. Combined with the rate at which the balls are flying out of the respective yards, the Blue Jays enter this series as favorites, and not just in the minds of their fans.
It’s a relief as well that we are playing against a team with which we really don’t have much of a history; there are no simmering grudges over past slights that require setting right. Our guys don’t hate their guys, nor vice versa. (No one in Cleveland has a memory long enough to warrant burning effigies of Dave Stieb over his 1990 no-hitter.) Respective blood should remain at a gentle simmer rather than a roiling boil. Two sets of titans are fated for a most civilized showdown. Our guys, and theirs, can just go out and play great ball night after night and enjoy doing it, to the benefit of every single fan. The game, and not individual egos, will assume its proper place at the center of the stage.
Could it all go wrong again? Certainly. Baseball’s entire outcome can turn on a single bad play. Ask Rougned Odor. You just have to make sure you make fewer bad plays than the other guys.
But more than last year, the Blue Jays have shown that hard work and dedication can pay off. They won’t lie down and throw any of these games away. They will fight and scratch and claw and battle to the last out to try to bring a championship north of the border again. And really, that’s all you can ask from any team to whom you throw your support, no matter the result.
Oh, screw that good sportsmanship horse puckey.
I want them to win, dammit.
GO JAYS GO!!!!