This was Yu Darvish’s year.
The Texas Rangers pitcher missed all of the previous season after Tommy John surgery. He was paid $10-million (U.S.) to sit at home.
The Japanese star returned to the mound on a mission. He didn’t allow more than three earned runs in a game until September. These playoffs were Darvish’s chance to re-establish himself as one of baseball’s elite starters.
All those months of rehab, training and quality starts led directly to Friday’s Game 2 of the American League Division Series. It took the Toronto Blue Jays less than 10 minutes to pull it apart.
In that time, Toronto batters hit three fifth-inning home runs. Two of them were put over the fence by the filler at the end of the lineup – the everyday No. 8 and No. 9 hitters. Kevin Pillar hit one that was thrown at chin level.
“They were looking for fastballs, I believe,” Darvish said afterward.
In all, Darvish allowed five hits. Four of them left the park. And this is an awfully big park. It ended 5-3.
“In baseball, these kind of things happen,” Darvish said with a shrug. This rather ignored the fact that he is the first pitcher in Rangers playoff history to let this precise thing happen. It’s a little like having your house crushed by a satellite falling out of orbit and then saying, “Well, you know. It does happen.”
Considering the occasion, it was the worst start of Darvish’s major-league career.
It’s not that he was especially bad. For the most part, he was effective. Instead, at least right now, Toronto is just that good.
We’ve waited just over a year for the murderer’s-row version of the Blue Jays to make an appearance in the postseason. Lock up your bullpens. They’re here now.
It isn’t the hitting, per se. It’s the grim, efficient way in which it’s been done. Everyone in the order looks like he’s up there with a cricket bat.
Baseball is too discrete – pitch, stoppage in play, pitch, stoppage in play – to be a true momentum sport. You don’t break your opponent. You bend them to the idea that they are outgunned, and then let them break themselves.
Despite the surge from July, 2015, on, perhaps it’s taken the rest of baseball this long to catch up to the idea that the Jays are now a Yankees-style powerhouse when they want to be.
“I’ve been here four years and winning wasn’t something that was synonymous with the Blue Jays. We were kind of the doormat of the AL East,” Pillar said, in a burst of what might be called excessive post-facto honesty.
He described toiling for the pre-Donaldson, pre-Tulowitzki Blue Jays as “just going around and playing and seeing what happened.”
If it paints several seasons in this club’s history as defeatist, that’s an irrefutable conclusion. For a long time, watching the Blue Jays was a Zen exercise – observing the rituals of the game for their own sake, with no hope of reward.
Even after they got better, no one expected them to win. Performance can improve quickly, but expectations take longer.
That’s how Pillar described it – “expecting to win every day.”
They’ve managed in short bursts. That feeling has never inflected a long procession of games that really matter. The closest the Jays have come were last year’s playoff games played here in Texas – a pair of tilts that never seemed like turning any way except toward the visitors.
The first two contests in this year’s ALDS had that same feel, but more so. They got on top early and pressed down relentlessly for the remainder of the game.
Friday’s Game 2 should probably have felt nervier than it did. Starter J.A. Happ was more of a mallet than a scalpel. Texas left an astounding 13 runners on base.
It tightened at the end, especially after reliever Francisco Liriano was hit in the back of the head by a line drive. If there was a moment when you felt luck was drifting across the diamond from one dugout to the other, that was it.
But it never felt like the Jays were going to lose. That’s how the weight of 20-odd lost years gets lifted – slowly, and then all at once. It’s no guarantee of anything, but it appears this team will play out whatever remains of this run without the hindrance of waiting for the sandbag to come out of the rafters.
The best indicator of that was the way Rangers manager Jeff Banister carried himself in the post-game. He did not let his stentorian presentation slip. He blamed the loss on “four unexecuted pitches.”
He flipped through the baseball prayer book, looking for hopeful passages: “up against it”; “uphill battle”; “start with one [win].”
But his heart wasn’t in it. There was no fight in his voice.
In Darvish and Cole Hamels, Banister threw out two of the best pitchers in baseball to begin this series. Horror-film style, they were pulled off camera by the Jays lineup, given the business and tossed back into the frame in a vaguely human-shaped pile.
The Rangers will start Colby Lewis in Game 3 – a man who lost five consecutive decisions to end the season. The Jays will push out their No. 1, AL earned-run average leader Aaron Sanchez.
On that basis, who do you think is winning the mental struggle that fills the space between now and Sunday evening?
The only mistake that could be made here is the one that’s most difficult not to make – looking forward. The reason pros harp on this point is that they do it all the time and wish they could stop. It is an inevitable part of human nature.
“We’re just riding that high right now,” Pillar said.
Sure, but you only know what high feels like after you’ve been low. As such, this isn’t about playoff experience. It’s about doormat experience.
On Sunday and beyond, the Jays have their best chance in a quarter century to justify all the intervening angst.
It’s a different sort of Zen. Stay in the moment for as long as possible, but with the hope that it just might turn out.Report Typo/Error
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