ARLINGTON, Texas – Just imagine, for a moment, what it would look like if the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting rotation continues to shut down opponents the way it has over the past few weeks, and the offence suddenly surges the way it can. If Josh Donaldson’s wonky hip lets him get locked in at the plate. If Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista continue to deliver key hits. If more of Troy Tulowitzki’s rockets touch green. If Ezequiel Carrera continues to be a catalyst at the bottom of the lineup.
What it would look like is their clinical 10-1 victory over the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday, behind a Madison Bumgarner-esque 8.1-innings of one-run ball from Marco Estrada and the club’s best offensive showing in more than two weeks.
Bidding for only the second complete-game in Blue Jays post-season history and first shutout, Estrada gave up a leadoff triple to Elvis Andrus before a run-scoring groundout by Shin-Soo Choo in the ninth. As manager John Gibbons came to the mound, Estrada pleaded for a chance to finish the outing, to no avail, leaving with one of the club’s best October performances ever, regardless.
"I was looking at Gibby the whole time, I was yelling, ‘I got it, I got it,’" said Estrada. "He never really looked up at me, so obviously once you see him point that’s it, there’s nothing else you can do about it. I don’t really care, to be honest with you. We won, that’s all that matters."
Tulowitzki’s three-run triple highlighted a five-run third that broke things open against a shell-shocked Cole Hamels, and ensured closer Roberto Osuna, who told Gibbons before the game he was available but at far less than 100 per cent, wasn’t needed. Bautista added a three-run homer in the ninth that put an exclamation point on a completely lopsided series opener, and tied him with Joe Carter for the most career post-season homers in team history at six.
He crushed it, gently laid his bat down, and circled the bases as boos rained down. A fan in left field drew cheers from the thinned out crowd of 47,434 by throwing Bautista’s home run ball all the way back into the infield.
Yeah, that sure showed him.
"I have a couple of home runs in my career and I think I’ve only flipped it once," said Bautista, referencing the homer and bat flip in last year’s ALDS against Texas that left the Rangers so mad they brawled with the Blue Jays this past May. "Most of the time I do that, just kind of been blown out of proportion because of the moment last year.
"So I don’t think there was anything too special about laying it down the way I did, because that’s the way 99.9-per-cent of the time I do it."
The Blue Jays send J.A. Happ to the mound in Game 2 against Yu Darvish having already stolen home-field advantage in the best-of-five series. They had two pro scouts following the Rangers over the past three weeks, and perhaps they picked up a thing or two to exploit.
The Blue Jays were like sharks sensing blood in the water against Hamels in the third. Melvin Upton Jr., rocked a middle-middle heater to the wall in right Choo made a leaping catch on. Carrera walked. Devon Travis chased and popped up an inside fastball. Donaldson turned on a curveball and ripped an 109 mph laser through Adrian Beltre at third base for an RBI double that opened the scoring. Encarnacion pummelled a chase fastball off Hamels’ glove for an infield single. Bautista slapped a high, flat curveball up the middle for another RBI single. Russell Martin took a walk. Tulowitzki fought off three changeups and spat on two sinkers before rocking a 92 mph heater beyond Ian Desmond’s reach in right-centre for a bases-clearing triple.
"Let’s go," he shouted at his dugout after popping up from his slide.
By the time all was said and done, the Blue Jays had grinded Hamels for 42 pitches in the frame. He was so disgusted, when he fielded Kevin Pillar’s inning-ending comebacker, he spiked the ball to first and needed a strong play from Mitch Moreland to record the out.
"In reality, we were due to break out," said Gibbons. "I thought we worked Cole really tough because he’s one of the elite pitchers in the game. That third inning we made him work and got a couple of big, big hits. … Can’t say we necessarily relaxed, but it was kind of nice to have a game where you will have a little breathing room, because we haven’t had too many of those lately."
Rangers manager Jeff Banister sent Hamels back out for the fourth, and that didn’t go well, either. Upton got his the second time around, turning on a 91 mph fastball up and in at 0-2 and whipping it over the wall in left. After Carrera flew out, Travis reached on an Andrus error (a scene you may remember from a previous movie featuring these two teams), advanced on a passed ball and scored when Donaldson dunked an 89 mph four-seamer on the inside corner into right field for a single.
That was all for Hamels.
Estrada, meanwhile, worked a changeup that was simply filth, while dropping in some knee-buckling curveballs just to really discombobulate the Rangers hitters. He caught Carlos Gomez looking on one such bender to open the game, and from that point on he was off to the races.
"The changeup was a really good pitch, I was getting a lot of swings and misses on it (eight on 33 thrown)," said Estrada. "But I think the most important thing was just getting ahead in the count. Just makes pitching a little earlier."
Really, if not for a defensive miscommunication on a weak Beltre roller to open the second – Encarnacion charged to his right to field the ball in front of Travis while Estrada didn’t cover at first – he might have been carrying a no-hitter into the sixth when Andrus opened the inning with a solid single to centre.
Andrus was promptly erased when Choo swung through a 3-2 change and Martin threw out the shortstop at second base. A one-out Carlos Beltran single in the seventh was similarly rubbed out when Beltre rolled over a cutter for a pretty 6-4-3 double play.
Estrada left after 98 pitches, having allowed a run on four hits with six strikeouts. Ryan Tepera got the final two outs and the rematch started without the venom featured in the last meeting between the teams, just a very one-sided Blue Jays victory.
"I wanted to avoid all the questions about the whole ordeal because we’re baseball players, not UFC fighters, and we come here to play ballgames," said Bautista. "That’s why I wanted everybody to focus on that in our clubhouse and we did. We played a pretty good game, today, and hopefully we continue to do that."