When Marco Estrada was acquired two years ago, he was the human equivalent of a bag of balls. His purpose was as a makeweight in a deal designed to help Toronto get rid of a player they’d grown sick of.
When Estrada was given a spot in the starting rotation, it was a sign that things were going wrong for the Blue Jays. You couldn’t say he’s come a long way since then. It would suggest someone had thought he’d go anywhere at all.
His counterpart in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, has rather more pedigree. Big, varied in his skills, a flat winner – he is close to the prototype of a major-league pitcher.
For most of the evening, you could not tell the difference between them.
On Friday, Estrada pitched the first complete game of his career. Given the stage, it may have been his best ever outing.
“Who cares about that? We lost,” Estrada said afterward. “It’s just that one pitch. It’s killing me right now.”
Estrada flinched doing what he does both best and worst – giving up fly balls.
An eight-inning art piece turned into a one-at-bat calamity when Estrada allowed Cleveland to go ahead 2-0 via a Francisco Lindor home run. It finished that way.
Toronto will blame the loss on umpire Laz Diaz’s impressionistic strike zone. The bigger issue was an inability to push base runners across early. For one evening at least, the offensive doldrums have once again stilled the Jays’ forward momentum.
But while losing isn’t good for Toronto, nor was it especially bad. Because while all games matter at this stage, this one mattered a lot more to Cleveland.
Until they wind their way back to their ace, Cleveland’s now in a spot of bother, starter-wise. It’s doubtful any team has ever gotten so far with less in that regard.
On Saturday afternoon, Toronto was due to face Trevor Bauer. Instead, Bauer’s start was moved to Monday’s Game 3 after he cut his pitching hand while repairing a drone.
Bauer’s manager, Terry Francona, nicely summed up the ridiculousness of the situation: “It’s kind of self-explanatory,” Francona sighed. “Everybody in here has probably at some point or another had a drone-related problem.”
In that vein, Toronto manager John Gibbons offered some thoughts on drone etiquette: “As long as it wasn’t weaponized.”
How did it happen exactly?
“Routine maintenance,” Francona said, and paused. “I don’t know what that is.”
Add this one to baseball’s long list of goofy injuries – getting rolled up in the rain tarp; third-degree burns in a tanning bed; Guitar Hero-related muscle strain; kamikaze snowmobile operation.
You’d think it signalled the end for Cleveland if a) all of their genuine starters (i.e. the three of them) were not on several days more rest than required and b) this wasn’t Cleveland it had happened to.
The second half of their season has been an extended exercise in rotation triage. A variety of mundane (i.e. forearm strain) and unlucky (hand broken by line drive) injuries have turned this team into a patchwork operation.
Bauer’s accident – a cut on his pinkie finger large enough that it required stitches – apparently won’t affect his performance. It doesn’t change his grips, but MLB rules forbid a player from wearing any sort of covering on a cut. Also, he may not bleed while performing.
Cleveland believes that won’t be a problem for Bauer. That’s doubtful. If the Jays have any cynicism in them, they’ll push hard for the roof to be open on a chill October night.
Whether it hurts his performance, it does cement Bauer’s reputation as one of the game’s oddballs. As Francona put it, trying very hard to be delicate, “he has his own thoughts.”
Perhaps, for the sake of his career, fewer of them should be aeronautical in nature.
The man who will now pitch Game 2, Josh Tomlin, began the year as Cleveland’s No. 5 starter. He lost five straight decisions in August, yet continued to move up the rotation as his peers fell. Effectively, Cleveland’s No. 2 starter would be in the bullpen if everyone else was healthy and performing.
“It’s just another start,” Tomlin shrugged. If he actually believes that, he was truly born to this work.
It’s possible that this enormous disadvantage may give Cleveland one small advantage.
A week ago, the Texas Rangers could not recover after their ace, Cole Hamels, was shelled in Game 1. Once your strength has been turned back on you, it’s hard not to lose faith. That showed.
Kluber is the antithesis of a Bauer – very good at what he does and very boring elsewhere. Off the field, he is best known for a Schopenhauer-esque fixation on routines. His off days are planned out with OCD exactitude. That approach has thus far extended to his post-season performance.
On Friday night, Kluber ran his playoff scoreless streak to thirteen consecutive innings. What’s less encouraging for Cleveland is that Toronto was right there with a guy they pulled off the metaphoric baseball curb and have plenty more like him.
As it stands, Cleveland has suggested they will go with a bullpen start in Game 4 – throwing out a series of long relievers rather than a starter and hoping for the best.
In that tilt, we’ll see Toronto’s functional ace, Aaron Sanchez, for the first and only time as a starter in this series.
So while an initial loss for the Jays isn’t great, it’s nowhere close to a catastrophe. Given that it was Kluber at home and that the Jays hadn’t lost in six, you might go so far as to say it was expected.
It’s a nice spot to be in – down one and still feeling like you have the advantage. That reassuring buzz will last as long as they don’t lose the second game.
If that happens, you can forget about matchups and likelihoods. That’s panic time.
So while Game 1 would have been nice, Game 2 sees Toronto return to a familiar state – one of utmost urgency.Report Typo/Error
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