It’s finally here. The series that Blue Jays fans – and arguably all of baseball – have been waiting for. After an epic Wild Card victory, the Jays get an ALDS rematch against their newest and most bitter rivals, the Texas Rangers. The Jays will turn to their most trusted starters in this series, and hope that the bats make some noise. While the Rangers’ rotation is not as deep, they can rely on a strong bullpen and balanced offence. Toss some bat flips and right hooks into the mix, and this should be an incredible series.
Todd Korol – Toronto Star
The Meeting on the Mound
Game 1 (Thursday, 4:30 PM) will see Marco Estrada take on Cole Hamels. This is an intriguing matchup. Estrada was shaky over the summer months, before he regained his form in September. He claims that he was unable to locate his changeup, and has recently found more success. Estrada was excellent during his outing in Texas last October, as he limited the Rangers to one run over 6.1 innings. A repeat performance would set the Jays off on the right foot. On the other side, Hamels had a typically solid season. That said, the veteran has seen his strikeouts decline and his walks rise. That bodes well for the Jays, who will take baserunners however they can. Unlike Estrada, Hamels had an ugly September. He is still the ace of the Rangers’ staff, but he is entering the playoffs in poor form.
The second game of the series (Friday, 1:00 PM) pits JA Happ against Yu Darvish. Happ has been the Jays’ most consistent starter. He has provided them with quality innings all season long. In his most recent outing, Happ allowed two runs to the Red Sox over 6.1 innings. The Rangers have a 99 wRC+ against left-handers, and thus are better able to cope with them than the Orioles. For Texas, Darvish has had an impressive comeback season. His strikeouts are still off the charts, thanks to his repertoire of seven different pitches. The Jays haven’t seen Darvish since 2014. He used to dominate them. Perhaps a fresh look at him will leave them better off.
Game 3 shifts the series to the Rogers Centre (Sunday, 7:30 PM). Aaron Sanchez will finally make his debut in the series. Sanchez put up an incredible performance against the Red Sox last week. That said, Sanchez has had trouble against the Rangers this year. He had one quality start against them at home, before they hit him for six runs a few days later. Game 3 will tip the series in someone’s favour (or could even end it). Sanchez will need to be on his game. The extra rest between starts should help him.
Marcus Stroman is the final starter to be announced. If Game 4 is necessary (Monday, time TBD), then he will get the ball. Stroman has proven on three separate occasions that he is a big game, playoff pitcher. While many were skeptical of the choice to go to him for the Wild Card – myself included – he was able to put all of those doubts aside. If the Jays hold a 2-1 lead going into Game 4, then Stroman would be the perfect pitcher to win the series.
These matchups still leave some questions unanswered. The Rangers have only announced Hamels and Darvish for this series. That said, it is a fairly safe bet that Martin Perez and Colby Lewis will round out the rotation. Perez has had another mediocre season. He walks lots of batters, can’t strike anybody out, and gives up hard contact. If the Jays can steal the first two games on the road, then Game 3 against him would be perfect. The other option would be Lewis. The veteran has had a better season than Perez. Similarly, though, he cannot strike anyone out. Lewis’ main problem this year has been the long ball, as he averages 1.47 HR/9. Perez gives up hard contact, but Lewis gives up hard contact. In fairness to Lewis, he was able to contain the Jays twice this year. The same can also be said for Perez. If they pitch more in line with their entire seasons, then that will favour the Jays.
The last question mark on the starting pitching front is a potential Game 5 (Wednesday, time TBD). The Jays will be left with a choice of Estrada or Happ. They would probably feel comfortable with either option. It would really come down to who pitches better in the first two games. The same will hold true for Hamels and Darvish. Any discussion of Game 5 is looking a little too far ahead at this point.
Back in the Bullpens
The Jays carry an advantage in terms of their starting pitching depth. They’re so deep that Francisco Liriano can’t even crack the playoff rotation. As such, he has been moved back to the bullpen. The extent of Roberto Osuna’s shoulder injury is still unclear. It would not be a shock to see Liriano assume the closer’s role, at least for Game 1. Apart from Liriano, the Jays will rely on their core group of Joe Biagini, Brett Cecil, Jason Grilli, and Osuna. They will carry a few other arms in the bullpen, such as Scott Feldman, but they will only appear in emergency situations. With so many days off over the course of five games, it is entirely possible that any one of the core relievers could appear in every single game.
If the series gets stretched to Game 5, then it would not be a surprise to see Sanchez make a relief appearance. He will not have enough rest to start the game, but could pitch out of the bullpen after two days off.
The Rangers have plenty of depth waiting in relief. Their bullpen has been led by Matt Bush, who has pitched an excellent rookie campaign. They have also seen an incredible comeback from Tony Barnette. Former Blue Jay Jeremy Jeffress was acquired at the deadline, and has been solid in limited innings. Then there is Alex Claudio, who has quietly put together a strong season.
Rounding out the bullpen are two familiar faces. The first is Jake Diekman. The flamethrower gave Jays’ batters fits in last year’s playoffs. His numbers may not sparkle this year, but he is still a dangerous weapon. Finally, there is the Rangers’ closer – the former Blue Jay, who is now immortalized in Toronto – Sam Dyson. Dyson has regressed ever so slightly this season. Even so, he is still one of the best pitchers that the Jays will face in this series. While Bautista had a storybook moment against him, it is unrealistic to expect the Jays to make significant gains against him this time around.
Chris Young – Canadian Press
Players to Watch
The Blue Jays need Josh Donaldson to start hitting. Last year’s MVP is in a bit of a funk. To be fair, Donaldson was excellent for most of September. This, despite his hip injury. Yet, Donaldson struggled mightily against the Red Sox. Fortunately, he looked to be back on track in the Wild Card Game, as he picked up a pair of hits. The Jays need him to make solid contact in this series. The warm Texas weather might set him straight.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ezequiel Carrera has been a key cog for the Jays. His play in recent weeks earned him a starting spot on Tuesday. Don’t expect that to change in this series. Carrera provides the Jays with their only true “small ball” weapon. He can lay down a sac bunt, bunt for a base hit, steal a base, or drive the ball the other way. These tools have made him a valuable contributor to a lineup that has struggled to score runs. On top of that, Carrera also provides competent defence in the outfield, which is more than Michael Saunders or Jose Bautista can claim. It would not be a surprise to see Carrera continue to play in the field while Saunders serves as the DH.
The Rangers will rely on a mix of the old and the new. Adrian Beltre leads their charge. The veteran is coming off his best season since 2010. Not too bad for a 37-year-old. More than anything else, Beltre found a boost in power this season. That led to 32 home runs and 104 RBIs. Beltre missed considerable time in last year’s series, which benefited the Jays. They will not be as lucky this time around.
One area where the Rangers were lacking was at catcher. They addressed that at the deadline by acquiring Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy has been the top catcher in baseball this season. The bad news for the Blue Jays is that he has only improved since joining the Rangers. The Rangers lineup is not quite as deep as the Jays’, but it can still be dangerous. If the Jays hit like they’re supposed to – and that’s asking a lot these days – then they should be able to outslug the Rangers. If they don’t, then Beltre and Lucroy could tip the scales.