TORONTO — Yovani Gallardo seems like a pretty understated, thoughtful, soft-spoken guy, which is to say that he doesn’t really fit the role of Blue Jays slayer, nemesis and antidote to the most potent offence in baseball.
You’d expect some sort of flame-thrower in the Nolan Ryan mode maybe. Or a Greg Maddux type who was all craft and guile. Or a Jake Arrieta or a Clayton Kershaw or someone else coming off a season that all-stars log en route to the Hall of Fame.
The unprepossessing Gallardo is none of those, not by the numbers: 13-11 with a 3.42 ERA this year, 102-75, 3.66 lifetime. He made his major-league debut with Milwaukee in 2007. At age 29, he could safely be categorized as a journeyman, and probably a notch up on journeyman but still the ace of nobody’s staff. At best the No. 3 on the staff but more like an innings-eating fourth starter on a team with designs on the World Series.
The latter would be the role the Rangers had in mind when they traded three prospects for Gallardo in February coming off an 8-11 season with the Brewers. They thought he’d be juiced about coming home to pitch in front of friends and family—born in Mexico, he grew up in Fort Worth and was a local legend in high school there. And they thought he would be motivated with free agency looming after the 2015 season.
The paradigm shifted dramatically, though, when Yu Darvish went down in spring training with a ligament tear in his elbow and wound up missing the season.
In a world where reason rules, the conversation would be whether he would get a start in the postseason. By way of circumstance and performance, however, Gallardo represents the Rangers’ best chance to get past the Jays.
The Texas right-hander will take the hill Thursday afternoon in Game 1 of the ALDS. He went 2-0 in two scoreless starts against Toronto this season, accounting for the Rangers’ only wins over the Jays. Yesterday he sat in front of a microphone and, if he had any secret to his success against the East Division champs, he wasn’t going to give it up on the eve of Game 163.
Not that he had no comment, just that he talked in the vaguest terms.
“We came up with a good game plan, just being aggressive,” Gallardo said. “We did a good job of making adjustments throughout the game whenever we had to. Just being aggressive in the zone and getting the guys to swing the bat. It’s a matter of executing pitches, hitting your spots and putting it where you want to throw it. Going into those games, I had faced a lot of those guys during my career. It’s just moving the ball around. Being aggressive in the zone throwing strikes.”
This is, of course, standard, banal stuff that can be said by any pitcher after any win. And how it played out, pitch by pitch, was all conventional enough: getting out ahead of hitters with a first strike, forcing them to swing defensively and foul off pitches with two strikes, and inducing weak contact when they managed to put the ball in play.
“Something a lot of people don’t do in this game is give the other guy credit,” Pillar said. “There’s a reason that he’s throwing Game 1. He’s a tremendous pitcher. He uses both sides of the plate. He throws borderline pitches early in the count to try to get weak contact. He has the ability to get guys to chase off the plate or get calls off the plate. He’s got that ability to throw the cutter or slider early in the count to try to get weak contact. It’s not a pitch you can do damage on. [Against us] this year he did a tremendous job establishing the outer half of the plate, getting calls off the plate or getting guys swinging and missing. You saw it with Keuchel the other night [in the Astros’ win over the Yankees in the wild-card game], establishing that he can throw strikes early and then just moving off the plate. That’s what David Price does. That’s what Stroman does. That’s what Estrada does.”
All of that is to say, that’s what pitchers do when they win and what they don’t do when they get lit up.
You can make a convincing case that Gallardo has had some hard luck this season and has pitched better than his won-loss record would indicate. You could also make the case that this has been a recurring theme in his career. Still, Gallardo’s success against the Jays is the only way to account for his getting the call over Cole Hamels, the Rangers’ big catch in advance of the trade deadline and a lion in autumn’s past, everyone’s idea of a pitcher you can ride to the World Series.