TORONTO – Terry Francona had two options in the seventh inning Tuesday, and neither was overly inviting. The Blue Jays had runners on first and third after relief pitcher Bryan Shaw throwing error on Jose Bautista’s dribbler to the mound. Francona knew he had little choice.
If he pitches to Josh Donaldson, who had been the Blue Jays best hitter in the postseason and homered earlier in Game Four, he was a fool. But the alternative was loading the bases for Edwin Encarnacion, a terrific hitter who know how to come through in the clutch.
Francona made the right decision but failed to get the desired outcome. Encarncion delivered with a two-run a single to center, giving the Jays a 4-1 lead en route to a 5-1 victory in the American League Championship Series. The Jays finally drew blood from the Indians after falling into a 3-0 series hole.
What did it mean?
Toronto avoided the sweep and lived to play another game. 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.
The Jays still have a chance, albeit slim.
Sanchez gave the Jays the performance they desperately 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 beating Texas in his first postseason start.
Donaldson homered in the third for the Jays, who were looking to become the second team in Major League history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The Red Sox stormed back to beat the Yankees in the ALCS before winning the World Series in 2004 under – guess who? – Terry Francona.
It’s unlikely to happen again, but it’s possible.
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.
In the postseason, offense comes at a premium. And with the way Sanchez was pitching, the two-run hole must have felt like six runs to the Indians. 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, came through with a double off the left-centerfield wall to score Coco Crisp. The Indians had been grinding out wins all season, but their bats fell quiet Tuesday.
The Indians haven’t been to the World Series since 1997 and haven’t won a title since 1948, or 11 years before Francona was born. The Jays haven’t won the Series since 1993, when Joe Carter clinched their second straight title with his historic three-run homer off Mitch Williams.
Toronto missed the postseason for 21 straight seasons before beating Texas in a memorable divisional series, and bat flip, before falling to Kansas City in the ALCS. Encarnacion’s 11th inning homer against the Orioles led the Blue Jays back into the ALDS, and Toronto’s heavy hitters were too much for Texas.
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.
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 delivered to his wheelhouse. It helped Sanchez settle into a groove.
The Indians’ bullpen has been spectacular in the postseason, but 8 1/3 innings of relief of Trevor Bauer left the bullpen thin in Game Four. Francona was trying to squeeze whatever he could from Kluber while hoping the Indians’ bats came alive. Kluber exited after the fifth. Shaw entered in the seventh.
Encarnacion was waiting.