The club is heading to the AL Championship Series for the second time in two seasons. Maybe the World Series this time. And the players in the Jays clubhouse, in a vote taken by Sportsnet broadcaster Mike Wilner, overwhelmingly selected the quiet slugger Encarnacion as their team’s most valuable player. Encarnacion may not be the Jays’ best player — outsiders would certainly select Josh Donaldson as team MVP — but inside the sometimes cranky clubhouse, Encarnacion’s value is at an all-time high.
His extra-innings home run against Baltimore put the Jays into the AL Division Series. He currently leads the post-season in home runs and RBIs and is tied in runs scored with Donaldson. He’s hitting .375 when it matters most and all that coming after a season in which he tied for second in the AL in home runs, was first in RBIs, sixth in walks, an impressive 22nd in strikeouts, and had more individual moments that almost anyone in baseball.
His slide into second during Game 3 against Texas on Sunday led to a messed-up double-play attempt and the winning run by Donaldson.
But when spring training began and Jose Bautista made the early days so much about himself with his rather outlandish contract demands, Encarnacion took on the role he seems most comfortable playing. He was the other guy. He was the guy no one was talking about or necessarily talking to.
What were the Jays going to do with Bautista? How much would they, or could they, pay him? And for how many years?
This was talk radio at its most engaging. Say that much for Bautista. He was born to make headlines. He is a front-page story waiting to happen. He’s the piece of the bomb that leads to the explosion.
The headlines Encarnacion makes are never about who punched him or his bat flip or what he said or what he didn’t say or what he meant to say. They’re just about baseball.
There are several knock-on effects of the Jays making it as far as the American League Championship Series, all of which benefit Shapiro.
First, the ghost of former general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been exorcised. Until a week ago, Shapiro and his executive gang were the ones at risk of taking the blame for any collapse. Today, they get all the credit for keeping the faith. It’s funny how quickly things turn – the space of seven games.
Manager John Gibbons has secured his own future. Gibbons has spent the entirety of his managerial life waiting for things to go wrong. That’s over now. He can remove the invisible “interim until Bud Black or Eric Wedge get a call” from ahead of his title.
This is great news for Shapiro. He gets to move on with a man who remains connected to the previous regime and so provides a buffer between Shapiro and ownership. If things go badly wrong at some future point, Gibbons takes the blame and leaves, putting Shapiro on the clock. Winning one playoff round has wound that clock ahead, perhaps by years.
Whenever this ends, Shapiro will have to begin bargaining with a slew of internal free agents. Sunday night’s win strengthened his hand significantly.
Fans will give him the benefit of the doubt now. If he says Jose Bautista wanted too much money, they will accept that Bautista wanted too much money.
And think of things from Encarnacion’s point of view: A week ago you were probably leaning toward a winner like Boston. That’s changed rather dramatically.
Are you going to leave just for the sake of a change of scenery? Maybe. But (increasingly with each Jays win) maybe not. If you won’t take Toronto’s money, others will.
If actualized, the projections will mark a raise for each of the players with Stroman seeing the largest increase from his current $514,900 salary to $3.5 million next year. It does make sense given that Stroman has produced the highest WAR total of any of the other Blue Jays’ players who are arbitration eligible. Following him, Ezequiel Carrera is projected to get a handsome raise from his current $521,800 salary with Barney jumping similarly from $1.05 million to $1.6 next year. While still expected to get a raise next season, that of Josh Thole (increase from $800,000 to $900,000) and Aaron Loup (increase from $1.05 million to $1.2 million) are less notable jumps that will obviously be less talked about, considering that neither is a “lock” to be with the club for the 2017 season.
“That series, winning those games, Aaron Sanchez’s start in the last game of the season, seemed massive to me,” Atkins said. “But at the same time, you try not to put too much weight into any game, into any one inning, or any single performance. I think that will be a series that we look back on and look at the perseverance and toughness.
“If we’re able to finish this off and win a championship, I think, that would be the series that I would look back to.”
Eight wins from a World Series title seems like an inch away and a mile away at the exact same time.
The fact it’s a sentence even being uttered is a testament to the sport’s unpredictable nature and this team’s resolve, something so many had questioned as it looked to be falling apart in September.
As the Jays attempt to reload and balance rest for their young arms with keeping everybody sharp, Atkins seems to be taking both the ups and the downs in stride.
“It’s what we love about this game, it’s what’s beautiful about it,” Atkins said. “There are no formulas, there are no answers, there’s no playbook.”
“I feel like our team is benefitting from some momentum, I feel like there are a lot of positives to how our team is playing cohesively, our hitters are turning the lineup over a little bit better than they were at the end of the season. So there would be some benefit to playing in the next couple of days,” he said.
“But at the same time, there are going to be benefits to giving a little bit more rest to our bullpen, being able to set up our rotation from an ideal standpoint. And Russell Martin and Tulo and Josh Donaldson have been pushing through and playing every day with day-nights, and we could have been potentially playing today at 1 p.m. There are pros and cons to both and what you focus on is the situation and the challenges that you have and that’s what we’re focused on. We’ll try to minimize the downside as much as we can.”
After Sunday’s wild 7-6, 10-inning win, Martin said he didn’t see any drawbacks to getting some extra rest, instead saying it could do the team some wonders. He came out of the day off between Games 2 and 3 to deliver his first hit of the ALDS, a solo homer off Colby Lewis in the first.
Donaldson noted that the potential for a break was a topic of discussion as the Blue Jays flew from Arlington to Toronto for Game 3.
“I’m not saying that we were looking past Texas, but we said, ‘Hey, man, if we were able to kind of win in a shorter series right here, it would give us a little bit of time for some of the guys on our team to kind of heal up a little bit,’” he said Sunday. “We’re going to celebrate and have a good time, but then it’s going to go back into recovery mode.”
He may play the hick at times, the redneck at other times. It’s somewhat of an act, the skin Gibbons is most comfortable wearing. But nope, he’s no dope. Factoid: He sits 103rd in all-time major-league wins with 634 over a relatively short seven-year (combined) tenure, exclusively with Toronto, needing just 14 more regular-season Ws to move into the top 100. After Sunday’s American League division series triumph, he ascended into a four-way tie for 48th overall in post-season wins, joining Yogi Berra, Dallas Green and . . . Buck Showalter.
A veteran clubhouse it may be, but it didn’t manage itself this season. It didn’t make out a lineup that required day-to-day adjustments to accommodate injuries and fatigue and keep all hands involved. To say nothing of pitch limits on young arms and an often wayward bullpen. If that ’pen is not up to playoff par — two relievers triaged in a fortnight — blame Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins for failing to assemble a decent depth chart of components.
Managing which misfires is evident to spot after the fact. No trick to critique peering into the rear-view mirror, and lord knows Gibbons has been smacked around on all public platforms.
“I don’t follow that stuff,” the affable (transplanted) Texan was musing in a recent conversation.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really care what the outside world thinks. Because they’re not in a position to have to make decisions. It’s easy that way.’’
So facile, lobbing grenades from the peanut gallery or nut-ball Planet Twitter.
Gibbons takes a more measured view. As, indeed, he is so rarely inclined to ignite — except, ahem, for those eight occasions this season when he was ejected.
“The beauty of baseball is there’s so many different ways you can do different things. I’ll sit at home if I’m not involved in a game and I’ll think along the same lines, you know? But, the manager’s job, you’ve got to make the tough decisions. You’ve got to know what your team can do and what they can’t, how guys tick. It’s not a perfect science either. It’s a game of human beings out there performing. An inch or two might make all the difference between success and failure.’’
As the Blue Jays await their opponent in ALCS, John Gibbons will have lots of time to figure out his rotation. Dirk Hayhurst takes a look at which order he would go with if he was setting the rotation against either the Red Sox or the Indians.
Last season, the Jays’ rotation was built in more of a traditional way with an acknowledged ace, David Price, and three starters who each seemed a rung lower than the next. Price was acquired at the deadline, when the team was struggling at .500, and became the beating heart of the staff. Behind him, in order, were Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey.
Of course, there were question marks. Price had never had success as a post-season starter and that trend continued even though he pitched decently. After a loss to the Indians on Friday, the talented left-hander, now with the Red Sox, is 0-8 in his last nine post-season starts.
Stroman’s ability to maintain excellence was an unknown because, despite his brimming self-confidence, he was only four starts removed from a season-long rehab. Estrada had never been a full-season starter and had already flown past his career high in innings pitched when the playoffs began. Dickey, meanwhile, did not have the confidence of manager John Gibbons — in fact, he has never had that confidence, largely because he throws the unpredictable knuckleball. Dickey’s October leash was at a win-strangling length. Estrada finally emerged as the Jays’ big-game ace, followed by Stroman.
By comparison, the current four-man rotation has no acknowledged No. 1 starter but is longer and deeper, more consistent in quality than perhaps any left on the MLB dance floor. There’s Estrada and Stroman joined by J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez. Gibbons has confidence entering a must-win game with any of the four.
“In a lot of ways, that’s been the key to our whole season,” Gibbons said. “All (four) guys doing their jobs. Before this even started, going back to before we played Baltimore (in the wild card), that’s one of the things we looked at. Hey, we feel good about that. Regardless of what situation we’re in, we feel good about anybody we throw out there, no doubt.”
Steve Simmons joins Hustler & Lawless to discuss the Toronto Blue Jays sweep of the ALDS. Simmons says it took until very late in the season for all parts of the team to come together, and have been electrifying Toronto fans since.
No matter how the series goes, the Jays will likely have to face Kluber, the Indians’ ace, at least twice and perhaps even three times. The 30-year-old righty, who won the 2014 AL Cy Young and is back in the running this year, struck out more than a batter an inning this season while posting the league’s lowest FIP (fielding independent pitching), which estimates a pitcher’s run prevention based solely on strikeouts, walks and home runs. Kluber, who in his career has held right-handed hitters to a .610 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS), could be especially tough on the Jays’ heavily right-handed lineup. Against Kluber’s slider this season, opposing batters have hit just .099. The good news for the Jays is that their current lineup has actually hit Kluber well, batting .283 over 119 collective plate appearances. Josh Donaldson and Melvin Upton Jr. have both homered off him, while Russell Martin has two dingers.
5. Ordinarily I might worry a bit about an extended break between games at this point in the year but at the moment I’m pleased that the team gets a few days off. It should do us well to have a little extra time what with the lingering injuries surrounding our team. Travis, Osuna, Liriano, Martin and Donaldson should appreciate a somewhat extended break.
It certainly seems like ancient history now, doesn’t it? The grind of the final month of the regular season that first saw the Jays fall out of contention to win the American League East then the tenseness of battling for a wild-card spot.
But the long ball apparently is alive and well now. The two home runs on Sunday at a raucous Rogers Centre upped the Jays number to eight home runs in four post-season games.
Not only did they sweep the Rangers, a team that had the best regular-season of any team in the American League, they did it in the booming style that has defined the team over the past two seasons.
“We turned this month over, we got really hot and we played great baseball,” Jays manager John Gibbons said.
And Gibbons, off to the ALCS for the second consecutive year, isn’t about to apologize for a dynamic team that relies on the power game.
“What we do, we get criticized for it a lot, is we rely upon that home run ball,” Gibbons said. “You know what? Whether you like it our not, that’s the kind of players we have. Since we’ve turned to October, it kind of looks like the old team.”
So, here we have a Blue Jays squad that has demonstrated everything you need to be successful in the postseason. They’ve seen their bats come to life, scoring 22 runs in 3 games. They’ve seen their starting pitching keep them in games at the bare minimum, with some dominance mixed in. They’ve also seen their club scratch and claw to manufacture a run from sheer hustle. It is this combination that has the team riding some serious momentum at exactly the right time of year.
No one knows how the rest of the postseason will play out. The Blue Jays will have some time off to rest guys like Devon Travis and hope that Francisco Liriano recovers quickly. It will also allow Donaldson et al to heal from the bumps and bruises that make their hustle that much more impressive. Who they get ready fro remains to be seen. Whether it is the Cleveland Indians (who Mark Shapiro is rooting for) or the Boston Red Sox, the good news is that the Blue Jays appear to have all of their weapons working at the same time.
“It’s impressive because we got it done,” said reliever Andrew Miller, who pitched four scoreless innings for the Indians on Monday. “This offence that we faced, particularly from the perspective of a relief pitcher, this offence is just unbelievable. To find a way to (shut it down), it doesn’t have to be pretty.”
The Sox battled to the end with a two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth that ended with runners stranded on first and second, two of the eight they left on the base paths during the course of the game.
The Indians, meanwhile, had more punch at the plate than the Red Sox throughout the abbreviated series. Their five home runs are second only to the Jays (10) in this post-season.
Not unlike those Jays, the Indians came into their series confident in themselves and determined to put aside one of the higher-profile teams in the American League.
“I’m pretty sure those guys felt they were going to come out here and sweep us,” Crisp said. “You have to have that mentality to be successful — and fortunately it went the other way for us … our guys believe in each other.
“We know everybody in the post season can hit and has good pitching, including Toronto. We just have to come out and relax and keep believing.”
They’ll face a team feeling the same way, starting Friday and Saturday in Northern Ohio.
The Indians talk about what they expect from the Blue Jays in the American League Championship series that kicks off on Friday in Cleveland.
After the Indians swept the Red Sox to set up a date with the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, Dirk Hayhurst joins SportsCentre to explain what you need to know about Cleveland’s lineup.
“To the casual fan, or even the intense fan, baseball is not a contact sport. It doesn’t seem like it’s a lot of wear and tear on your body,” said Pillar. “But we play 81 games a year on this turf and it’s not super-forgiving on your body. We get here at 1 p.m., to prepare for (7 p.m.) games, we’re out here at 4 p.m., to stretch and for batting practice every day.
“For most of us, we’re going in one direction all the time and that’s not how the body is meant to work,” Pillar added. “But we don’t make excuses. We give it whatever we got. I like to live by (the credo): ‘Give 100% of what you’ve got.’ And I think that’s what everyone’s doing right now. If you’ve got 80%, give me 100% of that 80% today. And I think that’s what you’re seeing from everyone.”
Pillar said no doubt the players will feel all their aches, pains and fatigue when they shut it down for the next couple of days as the adrenalin is turned off .
“We’re going to enjoy these next couple of days of rest,” he said. “Coming back here for the post-season, the body seems to feel a little bit better. Adrenalin takes over. But (the down time) is very important for us. You come off an emotional series like this, you need time just to kind of unwind, settle down. A lot of us are going to take (Monday) off, come in for treatment, watch the (Red Sox-Indians) game, see what happens and then we just start preparing for whoever’s next.
“But the biggest thing for us is just taking care of our body. Rest is so hard to come by in the baseball season and we have a rare opportunity to get three to four days off and we’re going to enjoy that.”
The thing is, where else is John Gibbons supposed to turn? He’s also heavily relied on Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, and Brett Cecil (who each threw in Game 3 as well), and doesn’t have a lot of desirable options beyond that bunch. Joaquin Benoit is out with a calf injury, and is greatly missed in his former 7th/8th inning role.. Francisco Liriano was no longer available for the ALDS after being hit in the head by a line drive in Game 2, sending him to the seven-game concussion disabled list.
The situations just kept presenting themselves where Gibbons would use his desirable pen options, but still needed to rely on Osuna for more than he wanted to. Once again, the situation developed in Game 3, and Gibbons stuck with his stud closer in the 10th inning.
The move paid off for Gibbons and the Blue Jays, as Osuna shut down the Rangers again before Donaldson scored in the bottom half to close the series. Osuna only had to throw 22 total pitches (after throwing 31 in Game 2), but it was still a risky move for the manager.
Hawai’ian righty Dustin Antolin finally got a taste of The Show in 2016 in the midst of a stellar campaign for the Buffalo Bisons. Our Reliever of the Year, Antolin led the Bisons with 46 appearances and threw 53 innings with a 2.04 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 27.1% strikeout rate and 12.4% walk rate. Obviously, that walk rate was on the high side, keeping Antolin from really being dominant but the strikeout rate more than made up for it. Antolin did all this with a normal BABIP at .292 although he stranded 84.1% of runners, a rather high number, contributing to a more realistic 3.36 FIP. Antolin pitched two innings with the Blue Jays, getting shelled with three runs on four hits (including a home run) and a walk with a strikeout. Antolin was designated for assignment and sent to Buffalo outright. He could be a free agent at the end of the season and is playing in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason.
One area Biggio wants to improve this off-season is in the field. Committing 13 errors and maintaining a .953 fielding percentage wasn’t the best start defensively for the young prospect.
Despite those numbers, there were several positives to Biggio’s defensive game as well as he assisted on 158, and took part in 35 double plays in 502 1/3 innings in the field.
Discussing the improvements he wants to see in his game before next season, Biggio has two areas he wants to sharpen before heading into spring camp.
“I’d like to improve my flexibility and fielding,” stated Biggio. “Those will correspond with each other. Helping my flexibility will help my footwork. Those are the two basics.”
Achieving those goals should be a realistic one for Biggio as he has a great mentor in the game to turn to for advice if he needs it. Being the son of Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio definitely has some advantages for Cavan, who had the opportunity to play for his Dad in high school.
“My Dad has been a big influence on my career,” stated Biggio. “Obviously everybody here dreams of playing in the big leagues and being a player like Craig Biggio. I was fortunate enough to watch him play and come home and spend time with him. He pretty much set the path for me in what I wanted to do with my life.”