TORONTO — Marco Estrada can count on striking it rich as a free agent in the off-season. Wherever he ends up, the Blue Jays will still owe him big-time.
For the second time in the post-season, the 32-year-old right-hander kept Toronto alive — this time with a gem of a pitching performance in a 7-1 win over Kansas City that forced a sixth game in their American League Championship Series.
Estrada was near flawless in limiting the Royals to one hit over seven innings and three over 7 2/3 innings.
"Everything he threw up there was right where he wanted it," said Toronto manager John Gibbons.
"He had everything going," he added. "He’s sticking that fastball, nice little curveball, and his overpowering changeup. He shut down a good-hitting, hot team."
Estrada retired the first nine Kansas City batters he faced. A single in the fourth — promptly erased by a double play — and a two-out walk in the seventh were the only blemishes on his pitching line in the first seven innings as he retired 21 of 22.
He exited in the eighth to a standing ovation after giving up a two-out solo homer to Salvador Perez followed by a single to Alex Gordon.
"Today he was absolutely dynamite," said Royals manager Ned Yost. "He didn’t miss spots. His changeup was fantastic. He just didn’t give us anything to hit."
The Royals still hold an edge going home, leading the best-of-seven series 3-2. The teams go at it Friday in Kauffman Stadium, with Toronto’s David Price likely facing Yordano Ventura in a rematch of Game 2, won 6-3 by the Royals.
Game 7 is Saturday, if needed.
Troy Tulowitzki drove in three runs in a four-run Toronto sixth and Chris Colabello contributed a solo homer in the second before a loud crowd of 49,325 under the dome at the Rogers Centre.
"It’s been a while since I pitched here, and I forgot how great our fans were," said Estrada. "It was pretty loud today. I had a lot of adrenalin going."
Estrada, who came to Toronto last November in a trade that send Adam Lind to Milwaukee, has delivered unexpected dividends for the Jays.
His spring training interrupted by a rolled ankle and with the focus on prospect Daniel Norris, the prognosis seemed a possible role in the bullpen. Instead Estrada, who is making US$3.9 million this season as he heads to free agency, became a key member of the rotation.
In June, he took no-hitters into the eighth inning in back-to-back starts. And he led the majors after the all-star break by limiting opposition hitters to batting .183.
"He’s pitched like that all year," said Gibbons.
Estrada is the first Toronto pitcher to throw seven consecutive shutout innings in a post-season game since Jimmy Key in Game 4 of the 1992 World Series
Still, with the Royals having the edge going home, Yost said his team is feeling good.
"We knew it was going to be a tough series. But after winning the first two games, in reality your goal is to come to Toronto — kind of a foreign environment, a hostile environment — and at least win one. Then you get to go home and win one there and the series is over.
"Now we’re going back to a place where we’re completely comfortable. That’s why home-field advantage was so important to us."
Toronto, outscored 33-16 in the first four games and coming off a 14-2 humiliation in Game 4, needed a stopper and they got it once again in Estrada.
Estrada rescued the Jays with a victory in Game 3 of the ALDS in Texas, limiting the Rangers to one run in 6 1/3 innings in the first of Toronto’s must-win games this post-season.
Royals starter Edinson Volquez, who had a fine outing in Game 1 to beat Estrada, was almost as good Wednesday — retiring 15 of the first 18 batters he faced. But he unravelled in the sixth, walking three Jays and hitting another with a pitch while unable to get an out.
Volquez dug himself a similar hole in the sixth in Game 1, with back-to-back walks to Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, who both worked nine-pitch at bats. But he struck out Edwin Encarnacion, induced Colabello to fly out after an eight-pitch at bat, before needing seven deliveries to strike out Tulowitzki in a 37-pitch inning.
This time the Jays, once again showing great plate discipline, got the better of him in the inning.
Ben Revere led off the Toronto half of the sixth with a seven-pitch walk. Volquez then hit Donaldson — as he did in an ill-tempered game back in August — on the elbow protector. With the crowd on its feet, Bautista then loaded the bases with a 10-pitch walk.
Volquez walked Encarnacion to bring in a run and prompt Yost to call for reliever Kelvin Herrera. Volquez threw 24 pitches in the inning.
Herrera struck out Colabello but Tulowitzki cleared the bases with a double for a 5-0 lead. The Jays added single runs in the seventh and eighth.
Aaron Sanchez came in for Estrada, who struck out five and walked one, to get the final out in the eighth. Toronto closer Roberto Osuna worked a 1-2-3 ninth.
Volquez gave up five runs on three hits with four walks and two strikeouts in an 88-pitch outing.
Tulowitzki, whose once cold bat has warmed up nicely, accounted for most of the offence by clearing the bases with a double in a four-run sixth.
The Jays shortstop, still feeling the effects of a late-season shoulder injury, came into the game hitting just .194 (7-for-36) but he has been a game-changer with the bat in three of Toronto’s post-season outings. And despite playing in pain, he has been a big contributor to the defence.
Tulowitzki set a club record for most RBIs in a single ALCS (seven). And his 11 RBIs are second only to Paul Molitor (13 in 1993) among Jays in a single post-season.
It was Toronto’s fourth elimination game of the playoffs and the Jays went into the game confident they could take the series back to Kansas City. The players’ suitcases were stacked neatly outside the clubhouse hours before first pitch, ready for transport to the airport.
"It’s a lot of pressure and there’s not a lot of room for mistakes," Bautista said. "Hopefully … when we get to the World Series, we have to take that experience to our advantage in the World Series."
The Royals opened the series with 5-0 and 6-3 home wins. Back in Toronto, the Jays rallied to win 11-8 before falling 14-2 in Game 4 at the Rogers Centre.