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Let’s Mess With Texas

We’re currently under three hours from first pitch in The Rematch of the Century between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, so now seems like an appropriate time to scatter about some thoughts on the upcoming five-game set. 

Let’s start with the roster machinations, which are probably going to draw some ire from Blue Jays fans, with the breaking news that Ryan Goins and Dalton Pompey were both left off the 25-man unit selected for this round. A reminder, that things can change as much as the team likes from round to round. So this doesn’t prevent them from being excluded should the Jays advance to the ALCS.

The unfortunate truth here is that the health of closer Roberto Osuna ultimately led to this decision. With rumours ranging from him being fully available for the series, to him being fully unavailable, and everything in between, John Gibbons & co. decided to carry some extra arms in Aaron Loup, Scott Feldman and Ryan Tepera. No Blue Jays fan feels comfortable with any member of that trio entering an important spot in a playoff game, but if Osuna is unavailable, it would leave them awfully short on bullpen arms.

With Francisco Liriano joining the “reliable” coprs of Osuna, Brett Cecil, Joe Biagini and Jason Grilli as a swingman/extra lefty, I think the inclusion of BOTH Loup and Tepera is a little redundant. I would have preferred a guy like strike-throwing Danny Barnes. But bottom line is that if any of these guys is pitching significant innings, things have gone horribly wrong.

That brings me to the main reason I think the Blue Jays can (and will) beat the Rangers in this series–their starting pitching. While the Rangers may possess the flashier 1-2 punch with Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, the Jays are solid 1 through 4. In the postseason, and especially in a short series, quality of starting pitching goes a long way in determining the outcome. Talent and pure stuff plays a big role, as does recent performance. Here are the ERAs of the Blue Jays starters in this series, over their last 3 outings:

  • Marco Estrada – 0.95 in 19.0 innings
  • J.A. Happ – 2.41 in 18.2 innings
  • Aaron Sanchez – 1.42 in 19.0 innings
  • Marcus Stroman – 2.70 in 20.0 innings

Averaging a shade over 6.1 innings per start is one way to ensure not having to use the suspect relievers at the bottom of your bullpen. If Blue Jays starters are able to pitch into the seventh inning every game, and leave the bullpen with anywhere from 5-8 outs, I’m confident some combination of Cecil, Biagini, Liriano and Grili can get the job done, even without Osuna.

That said, it’s important to remember the Rangers lead the league in come-from-behind victories. So do not assume any lead is safe. Each guy that comes out of the pen will have to bring is A-game, or this offense will strike in a hurry.

Both teams look relatively different than they did when they met seven times over 14 days in May. The Rangers have since gotten Darvish back from the DL, added catcher Jonathan Lucroy, outfielders Carlos Beltran and Carlos Gomez, and reliever (and former Blue Jay) Jeremy Jeffress.

Toronto has seen the return from the DL of Devon Travis, addition of Melvin Upton Jr., Dionner Navarro, Grilli, Liriano, Feldman and Joaquin Benoit (injured), while ridding themselves of Jesse Chavez, Drew Storen, Gavin Floyd (injured) and Chad Girodo.

At the time, it was team that had Kevin Pillar and Michael Saunders hitting leadoff. It was a team that had Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin in the midst of two-month-long early season struggles, and a bullpen that couldn’t hold a cold potato.

You’ll argue that bullpen, despite making big strides in July and August, is kinda right back where they started. And the offense has shown more flashes of May than August over the last five weeks. But the constant that remains the same is the starting pitching, and that’s where this Blue Jays team will live and die.

The exclusion of Goins and Pompey from the bench leave Gibbons without much room to be creative. He’ll have just Navarro, Darwin Barney, Saunders/Upton and Justin Smoak. No late game pinch-runner, only one utility man, who is also the only backup infielder. In an ideal world, they could take Goins, capable of playing anywhere on the diamond late in the game.

However, as the Wild Card game showed, this team doesn’t have much need for that. They’re unlikely to want to lift any of their starters in the event the game goes extra innings. Upton and Saunders will probably rotate through that left field spot, and Smoak likely only used with leads of two runs or more. Gibbons proved he’s going to use the guys that got him here to get them forward.

I have to say, I’m pretty proud of myself for making it 800 words without mentioning a bat flip, a sucker punch, and benches clearing. I don’t expect there to be any fireworks over these five games. As many players on both sides have said, the games are too important now to get hung up on activities from a year ago, and from four months ago. The Rangers need to shed last year’s demons of blowing a 2-0 lead heading home, and blowing a 3-2 late-game lead by committing errors on three consecutive plays. The Blue Jays are looking to take the next step and build off last season’s ALCS appearance, and a failure to at least return to that round of the postseason represents a failure on this season.

Ultimately, I expect this to be a very tight series throughout. If the Blue Jays are able to steal a game in Texas over the next two days (and I have to admit, I am expecting them to), I think they can wrap it up on four games, heading home with Sanchez and Stroman scheduled to take the mound.

But please remember–even coming home with a 2-0 lead is no guarantee. Just ask these Rangers from last season. And even being five outs away from advancing with a win at home isn’t a lock either–just ask last year’s Houston Astros.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you’re heading down to the game Sunday night (and/or Monday), please remember to NOT BE AN IDIOT. There is a serious culture problem developing with Toronto’s baseball crowd that needs to be nipped in the bud, if it’s not already out of control. No throwing shit on the field, no yelling racist remarks at outfielders, no disrespecting fans of the opposition. Smarten up, and enjoy the playoffs.

Prediction: Blue Jays in four, and a showdown with David Price and the Red Sox in the ALDS.

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