TORONTO – David Price is a different pitcher than he was in 2011 – more changeups, a different curve. He’s also better, says one of his former battery-mates with the Tampa Bay Rays – although he will take his foot off the gas a bit against the bottom of the order.
You’ve no doubt heard of Robinson Chirinos, by now. He’s the guy who hit the two-run home run off Price on Thursday that effectively put away Game 1 of the American League Division Series – the Texas Rangers catcher who caught Price twice while they were teammates in Tampa. The No. 9 hitter in a good Rangers lineup, on a night when the Price was very much right for the bottom of the order.
And while the only momentum in baseball is the next day’s starter, there is little doubt that after watching redoubtable third baseman Adrian Beltre leave the game in the bottom of the third inning with tears in his eye due to a lower back injury, the Rangers dugout needed a lift.
Beltre developed back spasms sliding into second base, after he had pulled up going to first on an RBI single. Beltre took the field for the bottom of the third inning despite his teammates’ protestations, but exited before Yovani Gallardo’s first pitch of the frame.
Beltre is nothing short of a talisman for this team, but he’s also coming off one of the best Septembers of his long career.
Enter Chirinos. No. 8 hitter Rougned Odor reached base twice when he was hit by Price pitches, scoring the Rangers first run in the third inning on a Delino DeShields single ahead of Beltre’s RBI single.
Chirinos advanced Odor to second on a nicely-executed hit-and-run. When Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin set second baseman Ryan Goins into motion for a back-door pick off Goins broke to the bag and DeShields’ grounder found a hole, scoring Odor.
This is how the Rangers go about their business: They put the ball in play, make you think and on this day they didn’t swing-and-miss at many strikes.
“Anything you can gain against David Price is a plus,” said Chirinos, the Rangers opening day catcher who appeared in just 78 games after missing most of August and September with a shoulder injury, and who went 4-for-12 with a double after being activated off the 15-day disabled list on Sept. 7.
Price’s career post-season record is the talking point across Canada, but he has evolved as a pitcher and in many ways it isn’t fair to compare what he was in 2010 or 2011 to what he is now. Chirinos knows this as well as anybody.
“When I caught him in Tampa, he was using his fastball and slider a little more so now he’s using his changeup – it’s really good,” he said. “He threw it to me after I hit the homer.
“I think he (Price) relaxed a little bit with the people in the bottom of the lineup,” said Chirinos, who hammered a 1-0 pitch from Price. “He doesn’t throw that hard against the seventh, eighth and ninth hitters. Everybody told me to be aggressive; to try and get a fastball. So I was looking middle-in.”
Rangers manager Jeff Banister ran a strong game in his post-season debut as a skipper. In addition to putting runners in play he read his starter, Gallardo, perfectly. He went to his very deep bullpen in the sixth, sensing the Blue Jays were starting to square him up. He gave Jake Deikman a surprising two-inning stint then finished up with former Blue Jays minor-leaguer Sam Dyson.
Bottom line: The Rangers lead the best of five series 1-0 without having used their best starter (Friday’s starter Cole Hamels) or their closer (Shawn Tolleson) on the road.
“We talked to the four guys we used at the back end of the bullpen and told them,” said Banister. “It’s about the stretch of hitters that we feel are the best matchups for each guy.”
In Beltre’s absence, 22-year-old Hanser Alberto – who made just three starts at third base this season – was pushed into the fray. The ball seemed to find him early – Edwin Encarnacion drove in the Jays’ first run on a bouncer that Alberto couldn’t field bare-handed – in what by Alberto’s own reckoning was his second game on artificial turf since 2011, in single-A short-season. He played an inning at Rogers Centre earlier this year and said he was ready if the Rangers need him on Friday.
“Any team would be concerned,” Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said, when asked about Beltre’s absence. “He’s a leader on the team … you saw we had to talk him into coming out. For him to get emotional about it, that shows how much he cares.
“The biggest thing he brings is such a fun atmosphere in the dugout – all his antics and everything. They’re missed when they’re not there. It’s one of the main deals other veteran guys are going to have to stay on top of if he’s not going to be here. We hope he is, and that was one of our arguments: Take it on in, get it right, ‘cause we need you.”
His replacement, Alberto, was one of five players on the Ranger roster younger than 25. This is a team used to an all-hands-on-deck approach, and Thursday they showed why many observers thought they were the team the Blue Jays should want no part of in their first trip to the playoffs in 22 years.
They have beaten the Blue Jays’ talismanic pitcher, even without their own talisman.