Almost 22 years ago, on October 26, 1993, with one on and the Jays down 6–5, Joe Carter hit a sharp three-run homer into the leftfield corner to give the Jays their second World Series title. It would be the last postseason baseball game in Toronto until Thursday.
So the fact that Game 1 of the ALDS at the Rogers Centre took place at all was a triumph in and of itself. If Jays fans had been in fall hibernation for the last 22 years, they woke up hungry. And loud, just as loud as advertised in the closed dome, making the air vibrate. And also, despite the way their team had steamrolled all comers on the way to this moment, a little on edge. The previously raucous crowd murmured with uncertainty when ace David Price’s very first pitch was called a ball—just a little high—and again when Delino DeShields Jr. hit the fourth pitch of the game a long, long way before centerfielder Kevin Pillar raced back and tracked it down.
In the second inning, Price struck out the side, and the crowd exploded with relief that maybe everything would be all right, not just here Thursday, but in the world in general. The whole game would be like this: Alternating yay! and oh no and phew and aaaaauuuuuughhhh. Each called strike was taken as a personal affront on the part of the umpire, each hit was a spark of joy. It was postseason baseball, back with all its glorious stress, excitement, anguish and general craziness.
There was just one hitch: The Rangers, rather rudely, refused to cooperate with the Blue Jays’ feel-good story. A solid start by Yovani Gallardo, one of the few pitchers to repeatedly contain the Jays this season, and a series of big hits, including home runs by No. 8 and 9 hitters Rougned Odor and Robinson Chirinos, gave Texas a 5–3 win and sent home disappointed the stirred-up crowd of 49,843. Price, who was if not the league’s best pitcher this season then at least a very close second, had another bumpy postseason outing, making him 0–6 in playoff starts. Worse yet for the Blue Jays, the probable AL MVP, third baseman Josh Donaldson, was pulled for a concussion evaluation; second baseman Odor’s knee caught his head, hard, as he slid into second in the fourth inning. (Though Donaldson was cleared by Thursday’s tests, concussion symptoms are tricky and don’t always show up right away; even he if passes subsequent tests Friday, he may not be out of the woods.)
Lacking a dramatic drought, after three straight playoff appearances from 2010–12, Texas was a bit overshadowed coming into the postseason. This was something it was well aware of: “I think [the clubhouse] is full of energy, belief, confidence, but yet they’re the ones that aren’t being given a chance,” manager Jeff Banister told assembled reporters before the series started. “I also think that there’s a little edge—and I thank you all.” The Rangers didn’t have the Cubs’ epic curse, weren’t a perpetual powerhouse like the Cardinals or the Dodgers, didn’t have quite the shiny newness of the Astros. Sure, they had overcome a plethora of injuries and slumps to get here, but they weren’t expected to stay long. Of course, they still may not—but the Rangers’ odds went up significantly with their win. The ground shifts quickly in a short series: Historically, teams that win that first game in a five-game postseason set have a .716 series winning percentage.
It wasn’t a perfect night for Texas, which lost its own star third baseman, Adrian Beltre, to lower back stiffness incurred during his own ill-fated slide in the first inning. In addition to being a power hitter and an outstanding third baseman, Beltre is a notorious gamer, having at various points played with a colostomy bag tucked under his uniform and with a swollen, torn testicle. Even with his back acting up, he stayed in long enough to double in the Rangers’ second run of the game in the third inning, and when he finally did leave the field he was obviously emotional. “We had to talk him into coming out,” said teammate Josh Hamilton. “It says a lot about him, as a player and as a man. It shows how much he cares.… He brings such a fun attitude in the dugout, with all his antics and everything, and they’re missed when he’s not there.” Banister, uncontroversially, called Beltre “the heart and soul of this ballclub.”
On the Jays’ side, Price was not awful. He went seven innings, struck out five and allowed just five hits. Most of those hits hurt, however, and while Price only walked two Rangers, he also hit two, or rather he hit one twice. Odor scored three of the Rangers’ five runs: twice after being hit by Price, the third time on his homer. “I didn’t execute three pitches to him,” said Price. “He probably would have liked to hit a line drive off my shin—he’ll settle for the home run.”
It’s hard to say, over the small postseason sample size, whether Price is doing anything particularly different in October or just suffering a combination of high-quality opponents and bad luck; he did say after the game that he didn’t think pitching on 11 days’ rest was a factor. “He did enough to keep us in the game,” said catcher Russell Martin. “We didn’t give him the run support.” Still, Price had given up four or more earned runs in a game only three times since the beginning of June; it was not the kind of dominant performance the Jays had every reason to expect from him.
While Price insisted that he did not let up when facing the Rangers’ less intimidating hitters—“I treat every hitter the same”—Chirinos, who caught Price in Tampa, disagreed. “I think he relaxed a little bit with the bottom of the lineup,” said Chrinos. “He didn’t throw as hard against the 7, 8, 9 hitters.”
“I tried to be aggressive and tried to get that fastball,” he said of the at-bat that led to his fifth-inning home run, “so I took that first pitch, I was looking middle-in and I was able to hit it out of the ballpark.” With all that said, Chirinos was still impressed by Price: “Since I caught him in Tampa Bay, he’s getting better. He’s commanding all his pitches. When I caught him in Tampa he was using his fastball and slider a little more, now he’s using his changeup. It’s a really good changeup! He threw it to me after I hit that homer.”
Gallardo’s success was relatively undramatic, compared to the pent-up hopes Toronto fans had brought to the Rogers Centre after decades of waiting: He stuck to his game plan, threw strikes, commanded the outside of the plate, got some ground balls when needed and turned it over the Rangers’ pen, a strength in their second half. But of course, that was plenty dramatic enough for the Rangers, who reminded everyone that they had their own feel-good story going here, thanks very much. The Jays got some big hits of their own, including a homer by Jose Bautista before he left with a cramp, but just couldn’t close the gap.
It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go, for Price, for the Jays’ feared sluggers, or for the city. But then, as Toronto was just reminded, that kind of disappointment is baked into playoff baseball too—every bit as much as Carter-esque glory.