TORONTO – In one view, the Blue Jays are left clinging to stab-in-the-dark history if they want to get to their first World Series since 1993. On the other hand, they were in pretty much the same spot a week ago and survived to get this far.
So counting out baseball’s best offensive club would be a mistake, even given the indignity of Tuesday’s 14-2 loss to Kansas City in Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays are in a 3-1 hole in the ALCS and need to win three straight to survive, just as they did in the division series against Texas.
No offense to the Rangers, but they’re not the Royals.
In a series that looked like a pick-em at the start, the defending American League champions have clearly been the better team. A lot better.
The Royals have scored 33 runs in the four games while drubbing Toronto pitching to the point the Blue Jays have been left with an 8.47 ERA – and had to make infielder Cliff Pennington the first position player ever to pitch in the postseason just to get out of Game Four.
The Royals are batting a eye-popping .500 with runners in scoring position over the four games, going 19 for 38. They’ve outscored Houston and Toronto, 33-6, from the seventh inning on in this postseason. They’re relentless at the plate and almost impossible to touch once they get deep into their bullpen.
“When you look at our lineup, we have Salvador Perez” batting seventh, “Alex Gordon hitting eight and Alex Rios hitting nine. There’s no dead spots in that lineup,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. “The offensive sequence continues to flow from 1 to 9 and that’s big. You don’t get to the point where you’re saying, ‘Oh man, we’re at the bottom of the order,’ where the offensive rally will stop.”
It sure didn’t in this one. R.A. Dickey’s second pitch of the game was a bunt single by Alcides Escobar. His fourth one was a flat knuckleball to Ben Zobrist that landed in the right-field seats to give the Royals a quick 2-0 lead. It was 4-0 after one inning and in just 12 minutes what should have been a juiced crowd of 49,501 was forced into silence that lasted most of the game.
Dickey, who had a 2.80 ERA in the second half, came up massively small in this one. His 1∏ innings, which included a Rios homer to left in the second, marked the shortest start ever in the postseason by a Toronto pitcher and his worst outing since joining the Blue Jays. Talk about bad timing.
“They spin on a lot of good knuckleballs and really hit the ones that were a little bit flatter,” Dickey said of the Royals. “Two singles, two home runs and I’m out of the game and that happened really quickly. This is like my 103rd start for the Blue Jays and it’s the first time I’ve gone that short. It’s the anomaly for sure but this is a poor time to have the anomaly.”
Segments of the crowd weren’t even in their seats for the late-afternoon start when the Royals were taking their quick lead. Many started streaming out, to the subway and early-evening traffic morass they’re used to here, when it was 9-2 after the seventh.
The succinct analysis of Toronto manager John Gibbons: “It was ugly today, no doubt about that.”
The Royals collected 15 hits, went 8 for 11 with runners in scoring position and collected four sacrifice flies in the game. Five players had multiple-hit outings, Escobar drove in four runs and Lorenzo Cain knocked in three. The top three men in the order had nine RBIs and the bottom three slots scored eight times.
“I want to go to home plate to be aggressive to swing at the strikes,” said Escobar, who is the master of the first-pitch hack and is 9 for 15 in the series. “I’m feeling really good right now. … I’m really focused.”
“What you need are guys to get hot and they have,” Yost said. “They’ve been table-setters. They’ve been run producers. It’s been fun to watch them go to work every day.”
From this view, the Royals have been the best team in the American League by a lot all season. They had a double-digit lead in the AL Central before we got to July 4 and, frankly, seemed a little bored as the season wound down. They were just 11-17 in September and you wondered if they could simply flip the postseason switch.
They almost couldn’t. Remember, the Astros had them down four runs with six outs left in Game Four of the division series and seemed poised for one of the bigger upsets in recent playoff history. But the Royals rallied for seven runs in the final two innings to win that game, 9-6, and rolled back home in Game Five. It was reminscent of last year’s Wild Card Game rally against Oakland, against whom they also erased a four-run deficit in the eighth.
That frantic finish carried them all the way to Game Seven of the World Series, where they left the tying run on third base against San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner in the bottom of the ninth. The Royals are on the verge of getting their chance at redemption.
The Blue Jays are grasping at a reversal of history from the 1985 ALCS between these teams, a fact Dickey mentioned and is clearly well known in the Toronto clubhouse. The home team (Toronto then, Kansas City now) won the first two games at home, dropped Game Three on the road and bounced back to take a 3-1 lead in Game Four on the road.
In ‘85, the Royals earned a 2-0 win in Game Five and then stunned the Blue Jays by taking the final two games in Toronto. Can the Blue Jays ride Marco Estrada here Wednesday in a game where their bullpen is beat up while the Royals’s vaunted relievers are exceedingly fresh?
Not unless their offense breaks out. Jose Bautista has done no bat-flipping in this series, going just 2 for 12. Edwin Encarnacion is 4 for 16. Neither has an extra-base hit. It’s a recipe for Wednesday to mark the end of the best season of baseball here in 22 years.
“These guys will let this one go and they’ll show up to play tomorrow,” Gibbons said. “The key is to get a good outing out of Marco Estrada and we’ll see where that takes us. Not a more important game in the season. I know these guys will be ready.”
Added catcher Russell Martin: “Now it’s win or go home and I don’t feel like going home yet. We might as well win three in a row and go to the World Series.”
Martin tried to say those words with conviction. It was hard to believe him.