CLEVELAND – The Toronto Blue Jays did many of the things they were supposed to against Corey Kluber. They made the Cleveland ace throw a lot of pitches. They put men on base and kept him under pressure. They grinded him hard. In terms of process, they were right there.
In terms of results, on the other hand, the Blue Jays were not, stranding seven runners over the first four innings, going 0-for-5 with a man in scoring position, and failing to deliver the kind of game-changing blow they dropped so often during their run to the American League Championship Series.
Ultimately, that meant Kluber was able to hand a lead to Andrew Miller after 6.1 shutout innings of work, paving the way to a 2-0 Game 1 victory for the AL Central champions. The Blue Jays could really have staggered their hosts with a win in the opener; instead, they must now reply after Cleveland held serve.
“It’s a matter of how Kluber pitches and guys with nobody on or just a man on first were able to connect on pitches when he’s trying to be aggressive,” said Jose Bautista, who struck out three times and walked once. “I think we got a little antsy when those guys were in scoring position and started swinging at some pitches out of the zone and he was able to take advantage of that.”
Marco Estrada made one mistake during the Blue Jays’ first complete game of the season, an 0-2 changeup he meant to bounce stayed down and in enough for Francisco Lindor to yank over the wall in right-centre in the sixth. The homer followed a Jason Kipnis walk and made it 2-0.
"It's just that one pitch," lamented Estrada. "It's killing me right now."
Kluber then retired Kevin Pillar on his 100th pitch of the night, a first-pitch groundout in the seventh, and then turned things over to Miller, who struck out five of the six batters he faced. Josh Donaldson led off the eighth with a single off the lefty, but Edwin Encarnacion struck out looking and tore a strip off home-plate umpire Laz Diaz, before Bautista and Russell Martin went down swinging.
Cody Allen then mowed through them in the ninth to seal the win before a crowd of 37,727.
"I thought we did a good job of getting (Kluber’s) pitch count up, and obviously the strength of their team is their bullpen, we just weren’t able to get any runs across early," said Pillar. "But I think we had good at-bats and that’s what makes him a Cy Young type of pitcher. When we had some runners in scoring position, he turned it up a little bit and made good pitches."
J.A. Happ gets the ball in Game 2 for the Blue Jays against Josh Tomlin, who was flip-flopped with Trevor Bauer after the right-hander sliced open his right pinky in a drone accident. True story. That made Kluber’s performance all the more critical, given the potential repercussions on the Cleveland pitching staff had he not gotten deep.
Early on, that was no certainty, as Donaldson hit a one-out single before Encarnacion doubled to put men at second and third. Third-base coach Luis Rivera wisely held up Donaldson with Bautista due next, but he struck out on three pitches before Martin grounded out to first to end the threat.
"The first pitch (a 93 mph sinker that looked to be just off the plate) was a tough one, it went his way," said Bautista. "And with a man on third and less than two, for me in that position after having that first call, I’ve got to expand a little bit and try to put it in play. I just wasn’t able to do it."
A Michael Saunders single and Pillar walk in the second were promptly erased when Devon Travis hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning, while Martin struck out with two on to end the third.
Another one-out single by Saunders in the fourth opened another opportunity, but Kipnis stole a hit from Pillar with a diving grab before Travis flew out weakly to centre.
"That’s why he’s an all-star, he plays both ways, but it was tough," Pillar said of Kipnis. "I’ve been getting good pitches to hit, trying to do whatever it takes to get on base, trying to advance the runner off a good pitcher and a guy makes a play like that, it’s tough to turn around and go to the dugout. You feel like you hit that ball in April, maybe you’re safe, we’re almost 200 games in including spring training, I get down the line as best I could, it just wasn’t enough."
The Blue Jays didn’t really threaten again, while Travis left the game in the fifth after feeling a sharp pain in his troubled right knee. An MRI was planned and if the news isn’t good, there’s some grey area in the rule on roster replacements since he was included despite knowledge of a pre-existing injury, so it's unclear if he can be subbed out. That’s why Ryan Goins had to be included on the roster.
"Pretty similar, just this one was more acute," Travis said when asked to compare his pain Friday to what he felt when the issue first arose in Texas. "I never did one thing where it was like, ‘Damn.’ Tonight was like, ‘Damn.’"
Though the Blue Jays squandered chance after chance, at minimum they made Kluber work, something important given that Cleveland plans a bullpen day in Game 4. In theory, the more pitches thrown by their staff early in the series, the more potential benefits the Blue Jays may see later.
"I know guys are conscious of that but that’s sometimes easier said than done," manager John Gibbons said before the game. "Those top guys, they give you one pitch to hit and a lot of times you take too much, the next thing you know you’re 0-2 and then you have no chance."
Cleveland manager Terry Francona acknowledged the challenge stitching his pitching together has been in the absence of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, something that’s required improvisation for weeks. Given that there are only so many pitches that can be thrown, there’s a shorter and longer term balance to be struck.
"When we talked to our team about this (Thursday), you play every game, I think, like it’s your last. I really believe that," he said. "What’s a little harder for me, maybe like tonight, is that with Kluber pitching, he’s a guy that’s won a Cy Young, he has the ability when he gets in a game and gets comfortable, he can go nine. So you don’t want to go (to the bullpen) too early either, because you save some bullets, that’s good, too. But it’s not to save them because of tomorrow, necessarily. It’s more how to win the game and how to do it the best.
"You don't have a crystal ball, but when you take a Kluber out of a game, it’s a little different maybe than somebody else just because of how deep he can go effectively. That makes you think a little bit."
The Blue Jays could have forced Francona to think long and hard with some hits early on, make him decide whether to continue riding his ace in the hopes of a correction, or make a move early to try and contain the damage.
They didn’t and Cleveland got a jump in the series, collecting a win in the game it absolutely had to have. The matchup favour shifts toward the Blue Jays for the next three games, when they’ll have to capitalize before they see Kluber again.