A brief respite from the brink is over for the Toronto Blue Jays, who are again facing the type of high-stakes games that marked their run through the regular season’s end to the American League Championship Series.
Certainly facing a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-seven against Cleveland isn’t what they had in mind after locking up a wild-card berth on the season’s final day, eliminating the Baltimore Orioles in the win-or-go-home contest and then sweeping away the Texas Rangers in the AL Division Series.
But in combination with their experience facing a 2-0 hole in last year’s ALDS with Texas and another 2-0 hole in the ALCS they lost to the Kansas City Royals, they’re at least experienced with the challenge before them.
“We’ve been in worse situations before,” says first baseman Edwin Encarnacion. “We know how to come back. We’ve got to start Monday. We’ve got three games at home. We know how to do it.”
The same lack of offence that led to an 11-16 September is once again at the root of the Blue Jays’ issues, with Cleveland’s pitching staff holding them to one run on 10 hits over the first two games.
The loss of Devon Travis to a right knee injury complicates things by removing one of their top average bats from the lineup, creating another hole, while the power that carried them past the Orioles and Rangers – they homered in each game against them – has thus far been contained.
“I felt like we took some pretty good swings and I felt like we took some pretty terrible swings, myself included,” says Josh Donaldson. “We’ve faced them two days in a row. We should know what they’re trying to do against us and hopefully (we) develop a better approach.”
Home runs have been crucial to the Blue Jays this year, as they went 9-34 in games when they didn’t go deep during the regular season, and 80-39 when they did. But in Game 2, Josh Tomlin, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen only allowed five balls out of the infield.
“I know one thing, they pitched great,” said manager John Gibbons. “I wouldn’t dare take anything from them, that’s for sure. (Corey) Kluber (in Game 1), one of the top guys in the game, and Tomlin, he’s right up there at the top command guys in baseball.”
While Kluber out-stuffed the Blue Jays, Tomlin effectively spotted his any-pitch, any-time repertoire all around the strike zone. Of his 85 pitches, 36 were curveballs, a heavier usage of the pitch than is typical for the right-hander.
“I needed to establish I could throw it for a strike early on, and then it was a pretty good pitch,” says Tomlin. “It was effective early on. So the endgame strategy at that point was use it whenever is a good time for it and see if we couldn’t get them out in front to try to get some early outs.”
Such an approach, “is nothing that should surprise anybody in here,” said Donaldson, a sentiment Troy Tulowitzki agreed with.
“You stick with what got you here,” he said. “They do things really well. Their command, the whole pitching staff, is above average. They’ve been making pitches, and playing a little bit better than us.”
One thing the Blue Jays can lean on is that unlike a year ago against the Royals, their pitching has been good enough. They allowed just two runs in each of the first two games and both Marco Estrada, who went the distance in Game 1, and J.A. Happ, who threw five innings in Game 2, deserved better.
Marcus Stroman starts against Trevor Bauer in Game 3 with Aaron Sanchez due to face Mike Clevinger at the head of a bullpen game for Cleveland in Game 4, two matchups that would appear to favour the Blue Jays, who could very easily level the series.
“Our starters are doing what they need to do,” says Russell Martin. “They’re keeping us in the game, making good pitches, pitching tough against a good offensive team on the other side.
“We just have to do our part offensively.”
Right now, the only difference between the two teams is in Cleveland’s ability to squeeze out just enough offence. But the margin isn’t wide.
“I believe in this team,” says Encarnacion. “I know we can hit. That’s one thing I know. And the way the pitchers have been throwing the ball, that’s why I feel so comfortable.”