TORONTO — If the Toronto Blue Jays have their way, handing the ball to a starter with the season on the line will become a common thing in coming days. All we can say for sure right now, though, is that when they give it to Marco Estrada for Game 5, it will be with supreme confidence.
The Toronto Blue Jays need a victory on Wednesday afternoon to extend the American League Championship Series they presently trail 3-1 to the Cleveland Indians. It’s the same do-or-die circumstance Estrada came through in on two occasions during last year’s playoffs.
“All I can tell you is I’ve seen him the last two years [and] when the team needs something, he comes through,” said manager John Gibbons. “That can even be during regular season.
“I expect he’ll be good tomorrow. It won’t be easy [and] you always expect out of all your guys, but he’s one guy, you see him doing that time and time again.”
The situation with Cleveland is the exact same scenario Estrada faced 12 months ago against the Kansas City Royals, who were trying to close out the 2015 ALCS in five games in Toronto. That’s when Estrada hit the rubber and turned in a masterful season-extending performance, surrendering just three hits and one earned run through 7.2 innings of work in what ultimately became a 7-1 Jays win. Ten days prior to that outing, Estrada helped stave off elimination in Game 3 of the American League Division Series by limiting the Texas Rangers to a single run over 6.1 innings in a 5-1 Toronto victory.
The resiliency is impressive, but if you’re looking for any revealing secrets from the Jays’ version of Survivorman, don’t hold your breath.
“I treat every game the same,” Estrada said Tuesday afternoon before Game 4. “I don’t put any extra pressure on myself. There’s already enough pressure from the fans, from everybody. I just think about it, honestly, as another game. And I’m pretty relaxed when I’m out there.”
That calm effectiveness has again shone through this post-season. Estrada, leaning on his wicked change-up, has gone at least eight innings in each of his two starts, posting a paltry 1.65 ERA. He took the loss in Game 1 of the ALCS in Cleveland, when a two-run homer from Francisco Lindor represented the only scoring from either side. Now, he’s trying to book his team an additional trip to Ohio.
“It’s another game. We’ve got to win,” Estrada said. “I’m going to go out and do what I’ve basically done all year and not really think about it as an elimination game. I’ll just think about it just as another game.
“My job is to try to go nine innings and give up zero runs. So it doesn’t matter if it’s the last game of the season, the first game, you want to do that every time out.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum, Cleveland starter Ryan Merritt has just 11 innings of work on his MLB resume. Merritt, a lefty, was a potential Game 4 starter, but manager Terry Francona switched things up and went with Corey Kluber after Trevor Bauer’s injured pinky finger began leaking blood early in Game 3. Merritt, 24, said he does draw some confidence from having one start under his belt at the highest level. Of course, it’s nothing compared to what he’s up against.
“They’ve seen a lot of baseball,” he said of the Jays. “They’ve been in the playoffs before. So they know how to play in the playoffs and it’s going to be a challenge.”