TORONTO – Josh Donaldson knew his teammates understood the situation when he took the floor Tuesday in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse before Game Four. He couldn’t possibly tell them anything they didn’t already know after dropping the first three games in the American League Championship Series.
The message, with the Jays facing elimination against the Indians, was less important than the messenger. Donaldson is the reigning Most Valuable Player in the American League, a punishing hitter and terrific third baseman. He’s also an emotional player and the Jays’ spiritual leader. His voice needed to be heard.
“Everybody knew coming into today how important it was,” Donaldson said after leading the Jays to a 5-1 victory. “At the same time, I just wanted to reiterate that and let the boys know I was coming to play.”
Donaldson delivered his message before the game, then backed up his words by delivering on the field. He gave the Blue Jays a 1-0 lead in the third inning when he drove a fastball over the left-centerfield wall. He made a diving stab at third base and a perfect throw to prevent the tying run in the fifth.
Rest assured he had Terry Francona’s attention in the seventh when he stepped to the plate with runners at the corners. Francona has been masterful through the regular season and the playoffs, particularly with his bullpen. He was left with two options, neither one inviting, with his team trailing by a run.
If he dared pitch to Donaldson, who had been the Blue Jays’ best hitter in the postseason, he was flirting with disaster. The alternative was loading the bases for Edwin Encarnacion, a clutch hitter who came through for Toronto with an 11th-inning homer in the wild-card win over Baltimore.
On another day, Francona may have considered bringing closer Cody Allen into the game in that situation. Remember, he summoned lefty closer Andrew Miller in the fifth inning against the Red Sox in the ALDS. Allen and Miller were part of a bullpen contingent that threw 8 1/3 innings Monday.
Francona elected to intentionally walk Donaldson and kept Bryan Shaw in the game to Encarnacion. It was the right decision, but it backfired. Encarnacion came through with a two-run single to blow open the game. The Jays finally drew blood from the Indians and lived to play another game.
“Early in the game, you certainly wouldn’t do something like that,” Francona said. “But in a game where we can’t give up another run, that to me put us in the best situation. It didn’t work.”
What does it all mean?
Toronto avoided the sweep. The Jays will likely see rookie lefty Ryan Merritt on Wednesday. His one start among four appearances on his big-league resume was a victory in late September over the Royals. He throws 87-88 mph, but he has enough movement and control to pose a problem for the Jays.
Toronto is expected to send veteran righty Marco Estrada to the mound in an effort to tie up the Indians’ lineup much the way Aaron Sanchez did for six innings Tuesday. If the Jays can get another solid effort from their starter and string together enough hits against the 24-year-old Merritt, then we have a series.
“What do I know about him?” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “That he’s left-handed.”
Sanchez gave the Jays the pitching performance they needed in an elimination game. He allowed two hits in six innings and kept the Indians off balance for much of the afternoon. He was coming off a nine-day break and looked fresh after going 5 2/3 innings and beating Texas in his first postseason start.
The Jays are looking to become the second team in Major League history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The Red Sox won Game Four at home and stormed back to beat the Yankees in the ALCS en route to winning the World Series in 2004. Who was the manager of that historic Red Sox team? Terry Francona.
Toronto wasn’t going away quietly after getting to the ALCS for the second straight season. Indians starter Corey Kluber helped the Jays’ cause when he walked the first two batters in the fourth. Ezequiel Carrera’s bloop single to center scored Troy Tulowitzki for a 2-0 lead.
Offense comes at a premium in the postseason. With the way Sanchez was pitching, the two-run lead must have felt like six runs to Cleveland. Sanchez pounded the strike zone, complementing his 95 mph fastball with a sharp breaking ball that took him into the sixth.
Sanchez’s walk in the fifth led to the Indians’ first run. Catcher Roberto Perez, who was batting .167 in the postseason going into the game, hit a double off the left-centerfield wall to score Coco Crisp. The Indians had been grinding out wins all season, but they had only two hits Tuesday.
Donaldson, who was batting .448 in the postseason going into the game, was the only Blue Jays batter making any noise in the first three games against the Indians. Rogers Centre erupted when he took a 2-2 pitch over the left-centerfield wall to give the Jays a 1-0 lead in the third.
Corey Kluber, who had won 10 of his last 11 decisions and had not allowed a run in 15 2/3 innings in the postseason, appeared to find his rhythm in the third. He struck out the first two batters before Donaldson jumped on a mistake left in his wheelhouse. It helped Sanchez settle into a groove.
The Jays still have a chance to win the series, albeit slim, but a chance nonetheless. It was all Donaldson wanted when the day began.
“When you get down 3-0, there’s frustration involved with that,” Donaldson said. “The fact of the matter is that I’m not ready to go home.”