Arlington, Texas — When the Blue Jays traded for Troy Tulowitzki on July 28, they envisioned him doing just what he did on Sunday night: breaking open important ballgames with timely home runs. The former Rockies shortstop’s three-run homer off Rangers reliever Chi Chi Gonzalez was the big blast in their 5-1 win in Game 3 of the Division Series, which helped the Blue Jays avoid being swept out of their first postseason appearance since 1993.
Tulowitzki’s homer, a 367-foot shot to left off what Rangers manager Jeff Banister called “a center-cut change-up, a non-executed pitch,” released a fair bit of pent-up frustration, for the team and the five-time All-Star. It came just after the Blue Jays had hit into their fourth double play in as many innings, one off the bat of Chris Colabello that had forced Josh Donaldson out at home plate. To that point, the Blue Jays had scored just two runs despite putting 10 men on base against Texas starter Martin Perez and Gonzalez, the latter of whom issued a 10-pitch walk to Edwin Encarnacion before Colabello’s double play.
In addition to giving the Blue Jays a sizable cushion, the homer snapped Tulowitzki’s 0-for-11 drought in this division series. It was his first homer since Sept. 6, though he had only played in 10 games since then because he missed three weeks due to a cracked left shoulder blade suffered in a September 12 collision. In 41 regular season games for Toronto, Tulowitzki hit just .239/.317/.380 with five homers, though the defensive upgrade he provided over Jose Reyes helped the Jays go 31-10 in those games.
If anyone needed a reminder that the 31-year-old shortstop was playing at less than full strength, he conducted his postgame interviews while wrapped with a sizable ice bag on his left shoulder. “Obviously I'm coming back early from the injury that I had. It's definitely not a hundred percent, I said that at the beginning of the series, but good enough to go, good enough to play and tons of treatment, to be honest with you.”
Beyond breaking out of his current slump, the homer broke an even longer October drought. It was Tulowitzki’s first in a postseason setting since Game 2 of the 2007 Division Series against the Phillies. He had hit just .169/.219/.237 in 64 plate appearances spread over 15 postseason games since that one, 13 of them with the Rockies. The last of those prior to this series came in 2009. It was Colorado’s distance from a return to the playoffs that led it to trade its franchise player and reliever LaTroy Hawkins in exchange for Reyes and three pitching prospects just prior to the non-waiver trade deadline.
Tulowitzki sandwiched that home run between a bases-loaded walk—his first time reaching base safely in the series—in the fourth inning, plating the Jays’ second run, and a single in the eighth, a performance that was part of a larger breakout for the Blue Jays’ biggest bats. Where Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Encarnacion and Tulowitzki had gone a combined 5-for-35 with three walks and two homers in Games 1 and 2, they went 5-for-12 with a double (by Donaldson), a homer and four walks in Game 3, combining to score and drive in four of the team’s five runs. That breakout stood in marked contrast to the 0-for-12 put up by Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland, the Rangers’ 2-3-4 hitters, on Sunday night.
“I think we were more patient in those big situations,” said Tulowitzki of the contrast to the Blue Jays’ approach in Games 1 and 2. “Something that we had talked about actually today was, I think because we can hit the long ball, and we can end the game with one swing [in Toronto], say, late in the game, that guys wanted to try to hit that home run. And today we put together good at-bats, walks, hitting the ball the other way, moving runners. We played just better baseball overall, so I think we learned from our mistakes.”
Tulowitzki’s homer backed a strong effort by Marco Estrada, who in helping to save the Blue Jays’ season found a way to stand out within a postseason rotation book-ended by two former Cy Young winners (David Price and R.A. Dickey) and also including a medical marvel who came back in-season from a torn ACL (Marcus Stroman). Estrada scattered five hits over 6 1/3 innings, and prevented the Rangers from putting two men on base in any of those frames until the last one, when back-to-back singles by Elvis Andrus and Josh Hamilton led manager John Gibbons to call upon lefty Aaron Loup, who retired Rougned Odor on an RBI groundout.
Said Banister, “Estrada kept us off balance all night with a change-up, just enough breaking balls to get us off the change-up, and the fastball … He was throwing fastball up in the zone enough that when he threw the change-up down and fastball down, we weren't getting good swings … It’s a challenge to pick up the change-up off of him. It's a plus-plus pitch for him.”
Indeed, Estrada generated seven of his 12 swings and misses from among his 17 change-ups. In 2015, he threw the pitch 28.1% of the time, a higher rate than all but two qualified starters, and generated swings and misses on 21.2% of those pitches, by far his highest rate. Via FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris, “No pitch thrown by a starter at least 300 times this year has gotten a higher percentage of whiffs from swings on pitches in the zone than Estrada's changeup.”
Gibbons and Estrada praised the work of Dioner Navarro, who caught 19 of Estrada’s last 20 regular season starts, a span during which he posted a 2.62 ERA, compared to a 4.24 mark prior. “Navarro’s got a great feel for him,” said the manager.
“It's just different the way he calls the game,” said Estrada. “I’ve tried to keep up with him, and I've said this a million times, the guy just thinks unlike anybody else … Just trying to keep up with the guy, I try to follow him as much as I can. Like I said, if I hit the glove, I'm going to be pretty successful with him back there.”
Estrada, who allowed a 4.18 ERA in the first inning of his starts this year, said that he had changed his pre-game routine for this start. “I warmed up a little earlier today. We worked on it in the bullpen. I threw more pitches and I think I was just not only mentally prepared but physically just throwing more pitches, being a little more loose.” The change helped, as he retired 14 of the first 15 hitters he faced, and 18 of 21 through six innings, needing just 83 pitches to do so. He finished having thrown 89 pitches, allowing five hits and striking out four in 6 1/3 innings without walking a batter.
With the win, the Blue Jays are back in the series, although they still face an uphill climb. Historically speaking, in five-game series since 1969, just two out of 29 teams that lost the first two games at home have recovered to win the series, for a rate of 6.9%. By comparison, of the 73 non-sweep five-game series, 18 teams that were down two games to one came back to win, a rate of 24.7% (h/t to Cliff Corcoran on the numbers). The Blue Jays will try to take that next step with Dickey on the mound for Game 4, facing Derek Holland.