Blue Jays embark on ALCS

Toronto Blue Jays photo

I have to admit, I had a moment of weakness and thought the Toronto Blue Jays season was over with four regular season games remaining even though the Jays sat one game up on the Detroit Tigers for the final wild card spot.

I even tweeted that I was going to be late to the office the following day because I was attending the funeral of the 2015 Blue Jays.

And then, just like it so often does in this game, just when you think you have everything all figured out, reality gets up and smacks you in the face.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m beyond thrilled to see the Jays wake up and give their heads a shake. They turned their game around, but also received a lot of help in the process.

⁂⁂⁂

The Blue Jays slow burning meltdown turned nuclear September 28. They blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning with one out when Hyun Soo Kim tagged closer Roberto Osuna for a two-run job.

I was still optimistic knowing that in the series finale, the Blue Jays were trotting out Marcus Stroman, a third-year arm that pitched in huge games down the stretch last season. Also easing my mind was the fact that they were going to be facing Ubaldo Jimenez at home, a place where he didn’t even make it out of the first inning back on July 8.

This was the biggest game of the Blue Jays season up to that point. It was basically a playoff game and it was their final home game of the season. Taking two-of-three from the Baltimore Orioles could have clinched their wild card spot.

But that didn’t happen. Jimenez threw 6.2 innings of one-hit ball and they Jays put together an embarrassing effort, losing 4-0 while playoff uncertainty swirled.

The Blue Jays stumbled into their final series of the season on the road and in Boston against a Red Sox team that was fresh on an 11-game win streak and still playing for home field in the playoffs.

Coupled with that, was the fact that it was David Ortiz’s final regular season home games, the weather was going to be miserable and teams treading around the Jays in the wild card hunt were playing weaker opponents.

The Tigers (1.5 games back) entered the final weekend series playing in Atlanta against the Braves who finished tied for the second-worst record in the big leagues and presumably already had lockers cleaned out. The Orioles were in the Bronx taking on a young New York Yankees team that fell out of the race a few weeks prior.

The Blue Jays still controlled their own destiny — until they dropped the series opener in Boston. At that point, things looked bleaker than Justin Smoak’s batting average with the bases loaded (.111). They just dropped three of their most important games of the season and were coming off a September that saw them go 11-16 and losing series to non-playoff teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, mixed in with a four-game split with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

I dare you to show me the point there where I was supposed to be optimistic about the Jays playoff hopes.

But, as they say in baseball, momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, and the Jays rolled out their 20-game winner, J.A. Happ.

While Happ yielded two runs in the bottom of the first inning, he was flawless the remaining five and a third innings while Toronto took the lead.

No team with 30 losses or more from their bullpen has ever made the playoffs. Kim’s blast off Osuna was the Jays’ 32nd loss from their pen.

The human fist-pumping machine Jason Grilli took a dump down his leg in the eighth after cleaning up Happ’s leftovers in the seventh. Jays’ manager John Gibbons called upon Osuna for the last six outs; something Osuna has never done before.

Osuna pulled one of the most unthinkable brain farts of all time when he balked in the tying run in the eighth. There was no argument from Gibbons or Osuna; it was another Torontonian-level mistake.

This had all the makings of another vintage meltdown that would be replayed on TSN for decades to come.

But, just like when the Jays recovered from Russell Martin’s potential self-destructive moment in Game 5 against the Texas Rangers last year, the Jays immediately responded against one of the leagues top closers.

There’s no stat out there that I’ve found to prove this, but the Jays aren’t scared of too many relievers.

I watch a lot of games­ — I watch much more than just the Blue Jays. You can see it in the other team when a 30-40 save closer comes into the game with runners on; teams know they’ve lost before they actually do. It’s a body language thing, it’s the way they tentatively swing the bat and it’s the way fans begin to trickle towards the exits before the game ends.

The majority of this Jays’ lineup doesn’t give a shit about closers. They hit Dellin Betances, they hit Wade Davis and they hit young Seattle Mariners’ closer Edwin Diaz (they don’t hit Zach Britton of the Orioles or when Aroldis Chapman played for the Yanks). They don’t cower in fear from 98 miles per hour.

And one closer they definitely aren’t intimidated by is Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox. The Jays hit .194 and a .316 on base percentage against Kimbrel, both are much higher than what he held the league to this season. He also finished 0-2 against the Jays this year.

The Jays got the leadoff man on against Kimbrel and we aided by a few wild pitches before Ezequiel Carrera drove in pinch-running specialist Dalton Pompey for the go-ahead sac fly. (Carrera has simply turned into the greatest player on the planet. He hit .359 with two homers in September when the rest of the team was spiraling out of control and has been unstoppable in the postseason as the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter.)

And I gotta give it up to Osuna. It takes some elephantiasis-sized cajones to run back out to the mound, on the road, after balking in the tying run with the weight of the postseason bearing down on you.

And they won. And there was the flicker of optimism that was lacking 52 hours ago.

In the midst of a soul-crushing collapse in September, the Blue Jays began to roll under the most tumultuous circumstances.

(Don’t forget that they were helped out immensely by the Yankees knocking the stuffing out of the Orioles relief core that was as lights-out all year and the Tigers laid a pair of eggs in Atlanta, including a statue-worthy performance by Aaron Blair who entered the game with a 1-7 record and ERA of 8.17. All Blair did was fan 10 Tigers in six innings and was followed up by Julio Teheran’s shutout in the season finale.)

Then came the wild card game in Toronto that will justifiably be remembered for only three things; the walk-off bash, throwing a $15 beer can onto the field and the worst managerial move by one of the games greatest managers.

What will be forgotten about this game was the strong six-inning, six strikeout, eight-groundball performance by Stroman, Jose Bautista’s solo shot to get the party started in the second, Kevin Pillar’s diving catch in right-centre in the fourth with a runner on second, Troy Tulowitzki’s diving backhand play in the fifth, Josh Donaldson’s barehanded throw on a Matt Wieter’s swinging bunt, Osuna injuring his pitching arm with one out in the 10th and Francisco Liriano’s brilliant 1.2 perfect innings in relief of Osuna.

Up next was the bat-flip, face-punch rematch that everyone outside the locker room and network executives hyped up.

There was little chance the Jays and Rangers would drop the dukes again. Granted, it has happened in the postseason before, but still, unlikely.

That’s why this series got shafted with start times. If this was such a heated rivalry that the media made it out to be, then why would they play the late game Sunday night and then opened Monday’s action with the first game; the least amount of rest for any of the series.

But the Blue Jays bashed the Rangers’ smug faces in. The Rangers sat pretty all season, beating up on the Oakland A’s and Angels all season, finishing with the best record in the American League and appeared to have the best one-two punch in the playoffs with Cole Hammels and Yu Darvish.

Things didn’t go as planned for the Rangers. Their starting pitching collapsed like a dying star, only throwing 10.1 innings allowing 16 earned runs while only striking out seven. The starters racked up a 13.94 ERA which tied them for the worst ERA by a starting rotation in postseason history.

Alex Claudio, a left-handed reliever for the Rangers, tied for the team lead in innings pitched with five. That is basically all you need to know to understand how poor the Rangers pitched.

The Rangers’ staff was middle of the pack in the regular season, carrying a 4.38 ERA (8th), 729 strikeouts (12th) in the sixth most innings used (921.1). The Jays ambushed the Rangers like a pack of starved hyenas.

Pardon me while I give the Blue Jays some overdue credit here. After a dreadful September where they hit .238 and carried a .698 OPS (fifth worst in the MLB), with 24 home runs in 27 games (fourth-worst), they completely flipped the script when (this is not an exaggeration) their lives were on the line.

Once the calendar flipped to October, it was like they crossed through the twilight zone and forgot all the troubles that haunted them the previous 30 days. They started putting together meaningful at bats, moving runners and attacking pitchers’ mistakes.

In the postseason, including the wild card game with the O’s, the Jays have reverted back to their juggernaut offence from last year.

Donaldson leads the team with a .538 average, followed by Tulowitzki (.462), Encarnacion (.417) and the anointed greatest player on the planet, Carrera, is driving balls to the gap like he needs new khakis and is hitting .333.

As a team, the Jays are third in average at .260; while leading the playoffs with an .863 OPS, 10 homers and 25 RBI.

All of that has led to their second-straight American League Championship Series, this time, against the Cleveland LeBron-James-less Indians.

The Indians completed their sweep over the Red Sox one day later than the Jays and made sure the door smacked Big Papi on the butt on the way out. So both teams will be well rested for the second round.

There hasn’t been the right article written about whether rest benefits or impairs teams in the playoffs. I think it’s basically a toss up, team-to-team and series-to-series.

You can argue that it took the Jays to stagger inches within their own peril to finally wake up at the end of the regular season. Playing must-win ball in the last two games of the season and the wild card game woke them up from a month long siesta.

The Indians punched their ticket to the postseason with eight games remaining and still outplayed the Red Sox in their ALDS. However, the Indians couldn’t afford to hit the snooze button for the last week, they still had home field advantage up for grabs.

From the outside, when it comes to short-term injuries and bumps and bruises, the Indians appear healthier.

Yes, starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are out along with outfielder Michael Brantley, but the three off days before the ALCS isn’t long enough to bring them back. There was speculation of Salazar returning, but Indians’ manager Terry Francona squashed that theory. The rest of their regular season lineup is good to go, whereas the Jays needed this four-day break.

Just from the mental standpoint alone, their lives have ben hanging onto every pitch for the past two weeks.

Osuna has been maxed out, throwing six innings in four postseason games. It has been documented in the second half of the season that Donaldson has a barking hip and he has led reporters to speculate on other nagging injuries, but is keeping his lips sealed about further details. Somehow, Russell Martin busted open the pinky on his catching hand during a high-five and has been playing with stitches. Devon Travis missed the final two games with the Rangers because of a bone bruise in his knee. Oh, and Liriano was nearly decapitated with a line drive. He should be available for Saturday’s Game 2.

Now the headlines shift to, can the Jays keep their red-hot bats going?

Hitting revolves around timing and the Rangers couldn’t sneak a mistake past the Jays; even Carrera and Pillar punched balls over the fence.

The time off will undoubtedly play a factor. Daniel Murphy played on a different planet last October, hitting .529 with four home runs in the NLCS win over the Chicago Cubs and was named MVP. A couple days off before the World Series and Murphy hit .150 with no home runs. There was no way Murphy could have kept that pace up, but the drop off was inevitable.

The key here is that both teams will have what feels like a paternity-leave-like break in the baseball world. The Jays enjoyed four days off while the Indians had three. We will have to wait and see who cools off during the down time the most.

So with no clichés available for the rest versus rust headlines, let’s take a look into the matchups.

The first glaring matchup comes on the bump. The Indians lost Salazar early in September to a forearm strain. He was pitching his way into the Cy Young discussion before getting shutdown. He has begun throwing bullpens but will not return this series.

The Indians managed to brush back the Red Sox with 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, while patching together wins with Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer.

Bauer was sent to the bullpen to begin the season after spending four years as a starter. He returned to the rotation in mid-May and has always been a high-rate strikeout guy who isn’t afraid to walk batters and has never finished with an ERA lower that 4.18.

Bauer was lifted in the fifth inning of Game 1 as manager Terry Francona saw the game up for grabs and brought in his brilliant left-handed reliever Andrew Miller. Bauer doesn’t go deep in games because of his pitch count. He is the type of pitcher that has given Jays’ hitters fits in the past; a hard throwing right-hander with a plus breaking ball.

Kluber is going to be tough. He is slated for Game 1 against Marco Estrada. Kluber finished with another immaculate year, going 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA with 227 strikeouts in 215 innings. He is a horse and might end up with his second Cy Young.

While having a deep rotation doesn’t necessarily provide an advantage in the best-of-five series, the Blue Jays should have the upper hand with a deeper staff over the Indians.

The Indians don’t have the reliable starting arms like the Jays do. After Kluber, you get Bauer who is hit or miss, Josh Tomlin went 13-9 this year and is a command guy, if he’s not pinpoint, the Jays can get to him. (Bauer and Tomlin just flip-flopped for Game 2 as Bauer after he injured his finger repairing a drone.) After that, the Indians announced that they’re rolling with rookie right-hander Mike Clevinger for Game 4 at the Rogers Centre. Clevinger hasn’t pitched since Oct. 1 and hasn’t thrown more than two innings since Sept. 22.

The Jays on the other hand, are locked and loaded with the American League’s best rotation. Aaron Sanchez, Estrada, Happ and Stroman to round out the rotation, one that led the AL with a 3.64 ERA.

Estrada is slated for the series opener with Happ in Game 2 and what could be the worst mistake since The Popup of Game 2 of the ALCS last year, sees Stroman pitching Game 3 and Sanchez lined up for Game 4.

I love Stroman. He pitches with a chip on his shoulder and can get out of any jam with the ground ball. But, when you have the AL ERA leader in your rotation, you must throw him more than once in a best-out-of-seven series. That’s the bottom line.

It’s almost baffling. Sanchez took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Red Sox in the final game of the season. He looked a little shaky during his FIRST CAREER POSTSEASON START Game 3 against the Rangers, but cut the man some slack, the fans in the Rogers Centre were going berserk. He was probably a little fearful of getting a Bud Light whipped at his head if he walked any more hitters. I get that he has logged more than 100 innings than any previous season, but he’s 24, big, strong and hasn’t showed any dips in his velocity or lost movement. I feel like this is a missed opportunity for the Jays when they have a clear upper hand in regards to the starting rotation.

The Jays’ bullpen is the sweaty hand holding the trigger on a grenade missing the pin. One slip and this whole thing could be blown to Mars.

With Liriano returning for Game 2, that gives Gibbons three reliable arms in the pen. The rest hinge on the edge of total chaos and Pearl Harbor II.

The Indians have a Travis Hafner-sized edge with relievers such as Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, Cody Allen and Miller who are all capable of pitching at any point in the game for whatever Francona asks for, but they just don’t get the headlines that Miller draws.

The Jays will have to pounce on Indian starters the same way they did against the Rangers. Runs will be hard to come by in the later stages.

Until the Blue Jays entered desperation mode two weeks ago, they played for the Earl Weaver three-run home run. Once the home runs dried up along with their lead atop the AL East, guys started stealing more bases and bunting more frequently.

That is not the same with the Indians. They have been manufacturing runs all year. They are the type of offence that whacks the ball to all parts of the yard, bunts when they have to bunt and run the bases like a full-court press.

The Indians finished fourth in baseball with 134 stolen bases while the Jays finished 25th with 54.

The Indians picked up stolen bases from slugs such as Mike Napoli (5) and Carlos Santana (5). Even third basemen Jose Ramirez finished the season with 22 swipes.

The Jays only had four players record more than five stolen bases this season. An extra 90-feet here and there in the postseason could make the difference.

I don’t even know how deep I need to go into this next point, but Francona will dwarf Gibbons this series.

Francona used his bullpen at length and not when needed to in order to win games while Gibbons burnt through his bullpen like a cheap cigar in Game 2 and 3 of the ALDS. He has also mastered the art of platooning his position players to maximize matchups at the plate, where as the Jays for the most part all hit right-handed hitting and everyone not named Miller on the Indians’ staff is right-handed.

History and logic proves that bats dry up in the postseason. Teams face better pitching, managers dial up more matchups and for the most part, hitters are hitting in colder weather. You can’t just rely on your athletes to out-ball the other team, Gibbons is going to have out push the right buttons and squeeze some outs from his bullpen.

This is a very winnable series for the Jays. I don’t see any 10-1 blowouts coming or the Indians’ starting rotation collapsing like a Jenga tower at house party. But, the Blue Jays do have the bats needed to beat the daylights out of anyone and they are clicking at the right time. If the Jays’ starting rotation can pitch into the seventh inning or deeper four times over the next week and a half, the Jays just might be able to reach the World Series.

It kills me to admit that I once lost faith in my favourite sports team. But I did. Some wanted to strip me of my Blue Jays fan card. And now that I believe they might actually have a realistic chance at getting back to the World Series, I’m more nervous than ever.

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