ARLINGTON, Tex. – Marco Estrada had two of the greatest postseason starts in Blue Jays history in the 2015 playoffs, throwing absolute gems in a pair of do-or-die affairs – Game 3 of the ALDS in Texas and Game 5 of the ALCS against the Royals at Rogers Centre.
Though the stakes weren’t nearly as high this time, Estrada picked up right where he left off, dominating the Texas Rangers in a brilliant Game 1 performance. He took a three-hit shutout into the ninth inning, and before giving up a leadoff triple to Elvis Andrus in that ninth, hadn’t allowed a runner past first base. He faced 25 hitters over the first eight innings, one over the minimum, didn’t walk anyone and struck out six.
After the Andrus triple, Shin-Soo Choo hit a ground ball to first for a run-scoring out, denying Estrada a shot at a complete-game shutout, and he was done having thrown 98 pitches.
Including his Game 1 start in the 2015 ALCS at Kansas City, in which the righty allowed three runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings in a 5-0 Blue Jays loss, Estrada has an ERA of 1.95 in his four post-season starts as a Blue Jay and an insane WHIP of 0.687. He has issued one walk in those four starts. One. Not in each start, in all of them combined. That’s not a typo.
And if you don’t include Game 1 against the Royals? Well, then it gets silly. Three earned runs in 22 1/3 innings for a minuscule ERA of 1.21. 12 hits, one walk, 15 strikeouts – the WHIP goes down to 0.582.
Estrada may well be the greatest hidden gem that there is in the game. Earlier this season, he set a major-league record by making 13 consecutive starts of at least six innings and allowing no more than five hits. He is a master of inducing weak contact in an era in which it’s believed that pitchers don’t have the ability to do that. He led the major leagues in infield fly ball percentage this season (16.9%) and has led the American League in opponents’ batting average two years in a row.
Estrada does it with an incredible changeup that he controls impeccably, and now it seems as though he’s mixing in a curveball and a cut fastball just for fun.
He struck out Carlos Gomez on a curveball to begin the game and when he faced the Rangers’ leadoff man again in the sixth, threw him two change-ups followed by three cutters and a fastball before striking him out again on a change.
Estrada says he comes up huge in the huge moments because he thinks of them as just another regular season game.
“Why am I going to add extra pressure on myself? There’s no point to doing that,” Estrada philosophized. “I think about it just as a normal game, and I try to pound the zone. I look at Russ (Martin’s) glove and I try to hit it as many times as possible. I don’t let the whole situation get to me at all, I’m pretty calm out there.”
The zen approach certainly worked for Estrada on Thursday. After a lead-off single by Adrian Beltre in the second inning – a hit that happened because Estrada didn’t get over to cover first on the ground ball to the right side – the calm hurler retired the next nine Rangers he faced and, with the help of a couple of double plays, got 18 outs from the next 18 hitters he saw, taking that shutout into the ninth.
Estrada wanted to finish, he’s never thrown a complete game in his career, after all, but manager John Gibbons wanted him to save some bullets for the four or five times the Blue Jays hope they’ll need him the rest of the month.
Asked about his feelings about not being allowed to complete the game, Estrada stuck to the zen philosophy that appears to be working for him so well. “Who cares? We won,“ he said. “That’s all that matters.”
The Blue Jays hope to not need Estrada again in this American League Division Series. If he gets another start in this round, it’ll be in the deciding Game 5. They’d much prefer he next take the mound a week from Friday in either Boston or Cleveland, opening up the Jays’ second straight trip to the ALCS.