Given the way the Blue Jays played over the final two weeks of the regular season, it seemed highly unlilely they’d be able to come home from Texas up 2-0 in their American League Division Series against the Rangers. Many fans would have been happy with a split, given the daunting task of facing Cole Hamels in Yu Darvish in the opening two games. Now, they send their own ace to the hill Sunday night, with a birth in the ALCS on the line. What are the keys to getting through?
- Aaron the Ace
At the time, pitching Aaron Sanchez in the final game of the season didn’t seem ideal, but now it’s turned into a blessing in disguise. After Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ did their jobs in the first two games, the Blue Jays come home and get to throw their ace with a chance to sweep away their western nemesis. And that’s the difference between this year and last, when the Rangers went home in the exact same position.
Discouragingly, for the Jays, Sanchez put up a 5.93 ERA and .280/.357/.420 slash line in 13.2 innings over two starts against the Rangers this season. However, the ugly numbers come from a start in Arlington. He threw seven strong innings in a victory at the Dome in May.
I put more stock into recent results than anything else. And those numbers are much stronger. In his final three starts of the season, he allowed just three earned runs and 11 hits over 19 innings. He’s in a groove, and will be well-rested. I expect the recent results to have more of an impact than a couple of starts five months ago.
- Keep Swingin’ It
0-3, 6.92 ERA. That’s the stat line for Sunday starter Colby Lewis over his last three starts. The Jays benefitted from a smart approach in Texas, waiting out Hamels and Darvish, eliminating ineffective breaking pitches and hammering fastballs in the zone (or well out of it, in the case of Kevin Pillar.) Lewis is not nearly as talented as either of his teammates. If the Blue Jays can maintain this approach, they should have success. The key: not getting complacent. They can’t believe that the series is over, take their foot of the gas pedal, and abandon their game plan. One way to do that?
- Strike First
Entering play on Saturday, the team to score first has gone 7-1. The Jays were able to get on the board early in both games on the road, eliminating both the Texas crowd, and the Rangers’ resolve. Two early deficits really seemed to do a number on the Rangers’ psyche (which you know is already frail, based on how their season ended a year ago). If they fall behind early again, it may be difficult for them to muster up the mental capacity to rally back. A saving grace for them, however, is the fact they lead the league in come-from-behind victories. That won’t be a factor if the Jays can …
- Feed off the Crowd
I’ve been to a few Jays playoff games. Maybe you have, too. By now, it’s known league-wide just how loud the Dome can get during a playoff game. They’re going to be revved up on Sunday night, and scoring an early run or two will only contribute to that.
Ultimately, the Jays need to treat Sunday night as a must-win game. While they’ll have extreme confidence handing the ball to Marcus Stroman on Monday in Game 4 if necessary, you have to imagine the Rangers will give Hamels a mulligan on short rest. And he’s unlikely to throw two duds in a row. That will put the pressure on the Jays to win and avoid sending the series back to Texas for a one game winner-take-all on foreign ground, against the team that had more home victories than anybody in the American League. And we all saw what happened in Game 5 last season.