TORONTO — When you think Blue Jays–Rangers, you don’t think battle of the bullpens. Or you didn’t, anyway, before Friday. This series was supposed to be a slugfest, two throwback high-scoring lineups, first and third in the league respectively in runs scored. There was a splash of that in Game 2 in Toronto — a Josh Donaldson home run, a Delino DeShields double, 10 runs scored in the game — but the game was a chance for both teams, especially the victorious Rangers, to show that they were more well-rounded than advertised.
“You don’t beat a team like the other side just doing any one thing,” injured third baseman Adrian Beltre said in the raucous visitor’s clubhouse. “We know we have to hit, we have to pitch and we have to get the guys over, get the job done when there’s men at third and less than two outs, and be aggressive. When they give you the base, you take it.”
Texas did that throughout a long, tense game on Friday, using heads-up baserunning — especially from 21-year-old second baseman Rougned Odor, who was in the thick of the Rangers’ runs for the second game in a row — and a lockdown group effort from their bullpen to beat Toronto 6–4 in 14 innings and head to Arlington up two games to none. It was a deeply frustrating night for Toronto, which fought the umpires all night, wasted a strong start from Marcus Stroman and blew an eight-inning lead, and now must win out behind the back of its rotation or head home.
You probably didn’t see “game-winning RBI Man Hanser Alberto” coming in this series either and, okay, no one could blame you there. Stepping in for clubhouse leader and frequent Gold Glove winner Beltre, who remained out with a stiff lower back, Alberto’s error in the second inning led to two unearned Jays runs. “I felt pretty sour in the moment,” he said later, “but you know, just kept my head up and got ready for the next ground ball after that.”
“It happens,” said Beltre, who from the dugout was helping an anxious Alberto position himself, batter by batter. So it was that, many hours later, and several lifetimes for petrified Jays fans in the Rogers Centre, in the top of the 14th inning, Alberto, who had hit .222/.238/.263 in 41 games this season, the 22-year-old’s first in the majors, nicked Jays reliever LaTroy Hawkins, at 42 the oldest player in baseball, for what would prove to be the game-winning RBI single. It was the unlikeliest of endings to a bruising game.
If you had been paying attention to the second half of the season, you knew the Rangers now have a strong pen. Texas relievers had a 2.99 ERA since the beginning of August, third-best in the majors. A weakness early in the year, the pen has been transformed, thanks in large part to midseason acquisitions Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman, and to Jeff Banister’s canny handling of them. “We talked to the four guys that we use at the back end of the bullpen,” he said Thursday, “about the stretch of hitters and how we’re going to utilize those guys to match up through the different innings.” In practice, for Texas this series has been, if not quite an attempt at the much maligned closer-by-committee (which teams tend to retreat from quickly at any sign of danger), perhaps the next best thing. Though Shawn Tolleson retains the closer title, Dyson got the save Thursday and Ross Ohlendorf, by necessity, in Game 2.
Diekman, a lefty who came to Texas as a relatively overlooked part of the Cole Hamels trade, threw two innings for the second straight day. He had a 5.15 ERA in Philadelphia; in Texas, it was 2.08. The Blue Jays collectively crushed lefties to the tune of .278/.354/.463 this season (and while they were no slouch against righties either, there’s still a nearly 30-point difference in OPS). But they haven’t been able to so much as touch Diekman — no hits, no walks, not even any especially close calls in four innings. “They’re not unstoppable,” Diekman said.
“They’re hitters, and I don’t think any of them are hitting 1.000. So, they’ve gotten out before. They’re good hitters, we just have to go out and execute pitches and get outs,” said Dyson, a righty who came over in an even more overlooked trade from the Marlins and proceeded to put up a 1.15 ERA in Texas. “For the most part [the Toronto hitters] are pretty aggressive, so I think our guys are just sticking to their strengths, attacking the zone and letting their best stuff play … We’ve just done a really good job in the moment of shutting the door.”
By the time the dust settled Friday, it was hard to remember that Cole Hamels and Marcus Stroman had started the game. Through seven innings, the Jays’ 24-year-old righty, making just his fifth start of the season, outdueled the veteran lefty. On Thursday, Stroman had claimed not to be nervous — scared of insects, yes, spiders and cockroaches and even moths, he would admit, but not of pitching, even in the biggest game of his life — but one could be forgiven for thinking he seemed a bit nervous in his first inning. The Rangers started things off with three straight hits, compounded by a Russell Martin error. “He was revved up pretty good,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, “but once he got that first inning under his belt he settled in … Stro was outstanding today.” Stroman eventually went seven innings, allowing four runs, three earned, and striking out five. From the third inning through the seventh, he allowed just one single and one walk.
Hamels, whose trade to Texas this summer helped spark the Arlington renaissance, also allowed four runs over seven, settling down after his own rough couple of innings, including the aforementioned Donaldson home run. “The pitch hung up there and, obviously, I guess he was healthy,” Hamels said with a rueful laugh. Donaldson had been tested for a concussion the previous night, and passed. “That’s probably one of the hardest balls I’ve seen hit in a long time.” It was a glimpse of the team the Blue Jays expected to be, but Hamels, while not quite unhittable in 2015, is still savvy enough to keep things close, a master in the art of bending instead of breaking.
The Blue Jays had plenty to complain about. Neither team was happy with umpire Vic Carapazza’s strike zone, though perhaps it hurt Toronto more. The owners of the best on-base percentage in the game during the regular season struck out looking seven times. And in the fatal 14th inning, replay upheld Odor as being safe at second on a Chris Giminez single, though from the available angles it looked as if he may have been ever so briefly, and barely, off the bag. It was hard to tell for certain, though, at least too hard for officials in New York. “That’s the way it goes,” manager Gibbons said.
Much was made Gibbons’s decision to let Brett Cecil, who relieved starter Marcus Stroman with the Jays up 4–3, pitch to righty Mike Napoli in the eighth inning. Napoli ended up with the game-tying RBI (and Cecil ended up leaving with a calf tear). The criticisms were fair, but considering Cecil’s sparkling second-half numbers — he last allowed an earned run 37 games ago on June 21 — it was hardly an insane or unjustifiable move. Cecil also is expected to miss an extended amount of time this postseason “Cece has been facing Napoli for years now and he’s really held him in check,” Gibbons said. “He's probably the hottest reliever in baseball right now … I think he just threw a curveball, the one that doesn’t have a whole lot of bite to it.”
A little more bite, a few different moves here and there ... but postseason heartbreak, or, for the Rangers, joy, is built on such small miscalculations.