TORONTO – The trade-off in pursuit of post-season glory is the risk of being left with the type of haunting ache that can sully fond memories, that can foster regret, that never really goes away.
In Toronto Blue Jays history, the most visceral manifestation of that equation is the collapse in the final week of a 96-win 1987 season, when seven straight losses erased a 3.5 game lead atop the American League East, and handed the division title to the Detroit Tigers in Game 162.
Frank Tanana and Larry Herndon are still rued to this day.
Ranking a close second in that regard is the 1985 American League Championship Series, when the Blue Jays took the opening two games at home against the Kansas City Royals, won Game 4 to move a victory away from the World Series before Danny Jackson, George Brett and Jim Sundberg – whose three-run, wind-aided triple in the sixth inning was the decisive blow in the seventh game – rolled the artificial turf out from under them.
Such eliminations don’t happen very often, and they leave an enduring heartache.
All of which brings us to the 2015 Blue Jays, who dropped a world of hurt on the Texas Rangers by rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win their American League Division Series, and are now facing another 2-0 deficit against the Royals in the American League Championship Series.
The odds of pulling off one such comeback were already long – the Blue Jays are just the sixth team to accomplish the feat in the division series, the third to do it after dropping the first two games at home – but twice in the same playoffs?
Only three teams have erased a 2-0 deficit in the league championship series – including those ’85 Royals over the Blue Jays – so it can be done. But any potential comeback, improbable as it is, must start Monday night with Marcus Stroman outpitching Johnny Cueto in Game 3.
“You could say we’ve been in the same situation before and I guess we have a little bit of experience being down 0-2 and it’s not the most comfortable place to be,” says Jose Bautista. “We’re still confident, we’re a great team, we’re playing great baseball, (Saturday) was one of those days where a small mistake can open the door for the other team. We’re not going to try to overanalyze it, just come in for the next game and play good ball.”
Saturday’s 6-3 loss is certainly ripe for overanalyzing, with the Ben Zobrist popper that dropped after Ryan Goins called off Bautista on but then backed away from serving as a catalyst for a five-run outburst in the seventh that ripped victory from the Blue Jays’ hands.
“This is not a place that we want to be but we’re faced with it,” says Troy Tulowitzki. “This team is tough. We’ll battle back.”
While Goins and David Price ended up the focal point, the bigger concern for the Blue Jays should be that their offence went 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position in the loss, after going 0-for-7 in Friday’s 5-0 setback.
They’re now batting an uncharacteristic .191 (13-for-68) with runners in scoring position in the post-season, after leading the American League with a .286 clip during the regular season, along with an .839 OPS.
Sure, the pitching gets tougher in the post-season, but at some point you’d expect that rate to normalize. As things stand now, they’re building a lot of innings but not leveraging them, and as the club’s record shows, when they don’t score five runs, they rarely win – 16-56 during the regular season, 0-4 in the playoffs.
The Royals, on the other hand, were 3-for-12 with men in scoring position in the opener and 5-for-8 in the Game 2, and are now batting .308 (16-for-52) in the post-season, better than the .281 they posted in finishing second to the Blue Jays during the season.
Improvement in that regard can change things fast.
“You’ve got to get a win under your belt, that will go a long way,” says manager John Gibbons. “We’re capable of that. We’re at home. That’s where you’ve got to win. It won’t be easy, no doubt about that. But we get one win out of the way, that can turn things in a hurry.”
Having already survived three elimination games should serve the Blue Jays well, although as Gibbons points out, “you don’t like to get in the habit of doing it, that’s for sure.”
“We’ll have Stro going on Monday,” he continues. “We feel good. It’s a lot tougher from here. But we have a pretty good team, too.”
So do the Royals, but as Game 2 showed, strange things happen in the playoffs.
In 1985, the Blue Jays lost Game 3 in Kansas City, 6-5, on Steve Balboni’s RBI single in the eighth inning off Jim Clancy, but recovered for a 3-1 win in Game 4 on Lloyd Moseby’s RBI double off Charlie Liebrandt and Al Oliver’s two-run single off Dan Quisenberry in the ninth inning, leaving them a victory short of the World Series.
Jackson’s eight-hit shutout in Game 5 sent the series back to Toronto, and the Royals again staved off elimination in Game 6 on a go-ahead homer by Brett in the fifth inning plus insurance runs on RBI doubles from Buddy Biancalana and Lonnie Smith in the sixth for a 5-3 win.
Game 7’s heartbreak followed as Dave Stieb, making his third start of the series, went into the sixth down 2-1 before Brett walked with one out, Hal McRae was hit by a pitch, and after a fielder’s choice by Pat Sheridan, Balboni walked to load the bases.
Sundberg followed with his three-run triple to right, Jim Acker took over and promptly allowed a Frank White RBI single that made it 6-1, and only the crying was left.
The Royals proceeded to again fall behind 2-0 and erase another 3-1 deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series, so there’s certainly precedent for pulling off multiple improbable comebacks in the same post-season.
Thirty years later, the Blue Jays are faced with trying to bring things full circle.