It was the fourth inning on Wednesday and the Toronto Blue Jays were already down 3-0, getting schooled by a 25-year-old rookie pitcher making his major-league postseason debut.
Ryan Merritt was merely perfect up until that point for the Cleveland Indians before surrendering a one-out single to Josh Donaldson, Toronto’s first hit of the game.
And suddenly the somnolent capacity crowd of close to 49,000 at Rogers Centre was jolted to life with Edwin Encarnacion, who led Toronto with 43 home runs in the regular season, striding confidently to the plate.
After working the count to 3-0, Encarnacion rolled over on a Merritt changeup for a ground ball that the Indians easily converted into an inning-ending double play.
You could almost feel the momentum gushing out of the Blue Jays dugout after that, their season soon to come to an inglorious end thanks to an offensive attack gone stone cold at the worst possible time.
The Indians, behind Merritt’s solid start and another splendid effort from the Andrew Miller-led bullpen, beat the Blue Jays 3-0. Cleveland won the best-of-seven American League Championship Series 4-1, the second consecutive year Toronto’s World Series hopes have been dashed at the same stage.
And when the Blue Jays look back on the reasons behind their failure, the lack of punch, for a team that was constructed around a feared offence, will stand out.
“You can’t really point to anything else,” said Michael Saunders, one of the few Toronto hitters who consistently showed up in the series.
In a playoff in which there wasn’t much to differentiate between the teams, a big hit here and there would have made all the difference. The Blue Jays did finish with a better batting average – .201 to .168.
But the Blue Jays, who were shut out twice in the five games and outscored 12-8, couldn’t come through when the limited opportunities were presented.
Toronto, which pounded 221 home runs in the regular season, only counted two in the ALCS and seven extra base hits in total.
And the Jays’ 50 strikeouts, including eight on Wednesday, points to a glaring inability to make adjustments on the fly.
Other than Saunders (.429), Donaldson (.333) and Ezequiel Carrera (.235), there were just too many passengers along for the ride in the Toronto batting order to overcome Cleveland’s tough pitching.
Slugger Jose Bautista, in perhaps his final game in a Toronto uniform, only had three hits in the series and a .167 ALCS batting average. Encarnacion, his free-agent running mate who also might be playing elsewhere in 2017, hit .211.
“We never really had a big inning, never were able to string some hits together or get a rally going,” said catcher Russell Martin, one of the worst offenders offensively who was a miserable 2-for-17 with 10 strikeouts.
“You can point the finger at us and say we didn’t do a good job,” Martin said. “Or you can point the finger at those guys [the Indians]. To get us out you have to pitch well – you have to. And they did.”
The Indians got the early jump, with Mike Napoli doubling to the wall, which scored Francisco Lindor from first after Carrera mishandled the ball in left field for an error.
If Merritt was uneasy on the big stage it didn’t show as his pitching made the Blue Jays look like amateurs.
Encarnacion was his first strikeout victim in the first inning, staring at an enticing 71-mile-an-hour curveball that floated over the outside portion of the plate.
In the second inning more of the same from Martin and Melvin Upton Jr., both rung up looking on called third strikes, both on fastballs down the pike and just too good to simply stare at.
Through three innings, Merritt was perfect, having tossed only 31 pitches.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s lead had increased to 2-0 when Carlos Santana clubbed a no-doubter to right with one out in a third, and silence suddenly cloaked the Rogers Centre.
The misery really started to take hold in the fourth when Coco Crisp took Toronto starter Marco Estrada deep to right for a solo home run that brought the score to 3-0.
In the fifth inning, Toronto had another opportunity, with runners at first and second and one out. But strikeouts to Carrera and Kevin Pillar dashed those hopes.
“I think not winning games is the biggest disappointment,” Pillar said. “I mean, if you look across the board I wouldn’t say they were swinging it either. They just came up with the big hit when they needed it.”Report Typo/Error
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