Blue Jays’ focus should be on beating the guys not named Miller

Listen as Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista talks about circumstances batters are facing in the ALCS.

TORONTO — Let’s make a deal: let’s not talk about Andrew Miller any more. The Toronto Blue Jays can’t hit him. Jose Bautista thinks he’s throwing a different pitch than last season, that he has added a second slider.

"It seems like he’s playing with it a little bit," Bautista said Sunday. "Sometimes it’s a short slider and sometimes it’s like a little slurve with a lot more break or sharper turn. I don’t know if that’s news but it seems as if that’s the case."

So let’s move on, what with Game 3 of the American League Championship Series set for Monday night at the Rogers Centre. Because let’s be honest, this ALCS needs to be more about Bautista beating the starting pitcher or somebody else not named Miller — and not missing his pitch when he gets one.

It’s not all on Bautista, of course. Troy Tulowitzki has one single and hit two balls out of the infield; Russell Martin has one single, four strikeouts and two groundouts. But, you get the point. As much as the story of the Blue Jays’ ALDS win over the Texas Rangers can be summed up by that nine-pitch walk Josh Donaldson worked off Cole Hamels in the first inning of Game 1, for many so far this series is summed up by Bautista’s swinging strikeout on a big breaking pitch in the first inning of Game 1 against Corey Kluber with two on.

"That one pitch I get every three over the plate … I’m fouling off," said Bautista, pointing in particular to a cookie from Cleveland Indians closer Cody Allen in the ninth inning of Game 2. "That’s the way the game goes sometimes. It seems like there’s two, three or four games where they don’t make a mistake and when they do you miss it. They’re tough at-bats. And for me, they’re coming at the wrong time."

Say this for Bautista: he could not have been more noticeable before Sunday’s workout, plopping himself down on the table in the middle of the Blue Jays clubhouse and holding court for 20 odd minutes. It was almost as if with his team down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, Bautista decided it was time to show the flag.

There was a method and a message to it, of course. Bautista has not been comfortable, to put it politely, with the strike zone he has seen in a few of the at-bats.

"I’m having great at-bats," he said in all apparent sincerity, "it’s just that sometimes the elements and circumstances we need to deal with as hitters don’t necessarily go our way.

"But I’m not trying to get into that."

Later, of course, he did. In a manner of speaking. "I mean, all you have to do is look at video and count the number of times they’ve thrown pitches over the heart of the plate. There hasn’t been that many. But because of … the circumstances that I’m trying to talk about but that I can’t … it’s for you guys to talk about, but you don’t want to … so I don’t see why we should."

This has been a series of splendid pitching on both sides, with little margin for error — and it’s enough to make you wonder what would have happened if the Indians weren’t without injured rotation stalwarts Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. But Miller has emerged as the story because of the aggressive manner in which Indians manager Terry Francona is using him. Yet as Francona noted Sunday, that aggressiveness comes with a plan, worked out before the game. "Before the emotion of the game," in Francona’s words.

"Mickey (Calloway, the Indians pitching coach) and I always talk before the game, and the reason being is, well, Andrew is the perfect example," said Francona. "I asked Mickey (Saturday): What do you think is realistic with Andrew today? Not what we can squeak out of him, but what can he do safely and still be dominant. And (Calloway) said 20 pitches. I think the last pitch he threw was his 21st. Again … 18 … doesn’t really matter. I guess my point is, if you do it during the game, like the way he’s pitching, it’s so easy to go: ‘Oh, he can go one more; he can go one more; he can go one more. You ‘one more’ yourself into trouble."

It’s probably going to provide Blue Jays fans with little solace to know that when Miller was a free agent in the winter of 2015 the Blue Jays spoke to his agent, Darek Braunecker, on several occasions. The Blue Jays viewed Miller as a closer, who had shown he could compete in the AL East. That was the winter in which Russell Martin was signed and those around the front office then claim that then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos believed they had a real shot at Miller, who ended up signing with the New York Yankees.

Bautista said that Miller is a different pitcher than he was with the Baltimore Orioles or Yankees, beyond that different look to his slider. The book on Miller was he would have difficulty when he fell behind. Now, Bautista says "he’s the kind of guy who can fall behind, but can make the count even or put it in his favour."

So let’s let that be it, then. No more talk about Andrew Miller. He’s good; he’s dominant. He is the nuclear weapon so far of the 2016 post-season. Beat the other guys; that should be the Blue Jays rallying cry.

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