The Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals each took home Game 5 wins in the Division Series yesterday. The Blue Jays used a wild seventh inning to survive the Texas Rangers 6-3, while the Royals overcame an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Houston Astros 7-2. Thus, the two favorites, Toronto and Kansas City, have advanced to the American League Championship Series. Here’s a look back on how each team survived its first-round opponent and a look ahead to the ALCS…
ROYALS RALLY PAST THE ASTROS
They were in a 2-1 series deficit, a 5-2 deficit with six outs left in Game 4 and then an early 2-0 deficit last night. In shades of 1985, when the only Kansas City team to win the World Series won six elimination games, these Royals also rallied.
The bullpen is the staple of this Kansas City team and it was again an edge in this series. With both pitching staffs melting down at the end of Game 4—a game that was 3-2 going into the seventh ended at 9-6, the Royal stopper Wade Davis came in and put a tourniquet on the bleeding. Davis got six outs, while counterpart Luke Gregorson couldn’t do the same for the Astros. It’s a couple innings of one game, but that’s the difference at this time of year.
Johnny Cueto, after a shaky two months since his acquisition at the trade deadline and then giving up four runs in the first three innings of a must-win Game 2, completely turned it around and justified KC picking him up. Cueto shut down Houston in the middle innings of Game 2 to let his team rally and then threw an October masterpiece last night. He went eight innings and gave up a lone two-run home run in a dominant outing.
Kendry Morales has given this Royal team some pure power that they didn’t have a year ago and his three-run blast in the eighth inning last night broke open a 4-2 game and sealed the deal. Morales also homered twice in a losing cause in Game 1.
All of these players—Davis, Cueto and Morales, were instrumental in the series victory. But if they gave out Division Series MVPs (and they should), my vote would go to second baseman Ben Zobrist. He hit safely in the first four games and in Game 5 delivered a key RBI sac fly that made the score 4-2 and gave Cueto some room to breathe. He made a sparkling defensive play in the late innings when the game was still tight. Zobrist drove in the lead run in the seventh inning of Game 2. For the series, he went 6-for-18 and drew a couple walks. That’s an MVP performance to me.
BLUE JAYS SWEEP PAST THE RANGERS
After Toronto dropped the first two games at home, including a 14-inning heartbreaker in Game 2 when they coughed up a lead in the eighth inning, this series looked over. The Blue Jay bats awoke in Texas with two straight easy wins and they finally finished it off with yesterday’s four-run seventh-inning that was punctuated by Jose Bautista’s tiebreaking three-run blast. It was Bautista’s second home run of the series, along with two doubles and he slugged .636 in the five games.
Prior to the series, TheSportsNotebook said to keep an eye on Ben Revere, that the leftfielder was the kind of pest hitter that could sneak underneath the star-laden Toronto lineup and cause problems. Revere went 7-for-23 in this series. Kevin Pillar was another pest. Known for his defensive brilliance, Kevin Pillar hit .333.
And was anyone a bigger hero than Edwin Encarcion? Not for the .333 average and game-tying home run yesterday, as nice as that was. But for his pleading for the Toronto mob to settle down and quit throwing beer bottles on the field, as the TV cameras showed mothers taking their children to run for cover.
Unlike Houston, which put up a good effort and simply got their hearts broken, Texas will have a lot of coulda shoulda wouldas to look back at and for reasons going well beyond the blown 2-0 series lead. Ranger manager Jeff Bannister didn’t use closer Shawn Tolleson in key spots, including yesterday when Bautista hit the home run that an Eskimo may end up catching.
Tolleson was brilliant this year for Texas, closing 35/37 chances. He didn’t pitch in the most important moments of this series. Presumably Bannister felt that finesse pitchers had a better chance against Toronto. I understand the thought process and won’t crush Bannister for it. But I do think the manager out-thought himself. Give your best guy a shot.
And then there’s Elvis Andrus, responsible for two of the errors in the Texas defensive meltdown of the seventh inning, the worst I can recall seeing in a postseason baseball game. The Rangers effectively gave the Blue Jays seven outs in the seventh inning. I’m not an analytics guy, but I’m going to guess your odds of winning go down drastically when that happens.
On this 30th anniversary of the Royals’ 1985 championship, it’s appropriate that we have a rematch of the 1985 ALCS. Toronto was the best team in the American League that year. This season, Kansas City has the best record, with 95 wins to Toronto’s 93. But the Blue Jays are the betting favorite, pegged as a (-155) favorite to bring home this series.
I’m inclined to agree, but it’s not because of Toronto’s offense. As explosive as the Blue Jay attack is, the Royals can match them, or at least come reasonably close to it. I like Toronto because I think the pitching depth is more reliable.
In a series where neither team has its rotation lined up, I like Toronto’s Game 1 starter Marco Estrada over Edinson Volquez. I’ll take arms like R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle over Jeremy Guthrie every day of the week and twice on Sundays. David Price has his postseason issues, but so does KC’s Yordano Ventura, and those two match up in Game 2.
Furthermore, while the Blue Jay bullpen isn’t as renowned as the Royals’ relief corps, Roberto Osuna is a good young closer and manager John Gibbons has depth to work with. An area that Kansas City has won three postseason series over the last two years doesn’t offer anything more than a marginal advantage.
The Royals do have a path to victory and it’s called the Johnny Brent Cueto Trail. Cueto would be lined up to pitch Game 3 and would presumably come back for a Game 7, which would be at home. Homefield advantage, while not as important as in the NFL and certainly not the NBA, is also not as incidental as it is in the NHL. In baseball, the homefield advantage tends to show up on the back end. Which means that if the Royals can get the ball to Cueto in Game 7 in KC, they have the advantage.
But I don’t think they’ll get that far. Johnny will win his start in Game 3, but Toronto takes the series in six games.
Game 1 is Friday at 7 PM ET, with Fox having the coverage.