The undercard is over, leaving the stage for the main event. If you thought Toronto vs. Texas was a match made in promoters’ heaven, just wait for the Blue Jays-Royals rumble that begins tonight for the American League pennant. Toronto and Kansas City are two teams that play new-school baseball, which is to say they have swagger and aren’t afraid to show it, be it chirping at umpires, flipping bats, flipping hitters, kicking up dirt on the base paths with hard slides or celebrating every run as if it’s their last.
The Blue Jays best showed their power and emotion in ALDS Game 5, a rock concert of a game that will be known as The Bat Flip Game in honor of the dig-me pose of Jays rightfielder Jose Bautista upon his series-clinching monster of a homer. The Royals dropped the gauntlet on the league way back in the first month of the season, when they set out to prove their 2014 pennant was no fluke by showing teams they were ready leave the bench and fight if anybody so much as looked at them the wrong way.
The worlds of the Jays and Royals collided in mid-summer, when a chippy series finally went ka-boom. Kansas City righthander Edinson Volquez hit Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson with a 94-mph sinker in the first inning on Aug. 2, in a series in which Donaldson already had seven RBIs and Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas of Kansas City and Troy Tulowitzki of Toronto had been drilled.
Warnings were issued, though that didn’t stop Volquez, two innings later, from throwing an 0–1 changeup past Donaldson’s chin. (One way to claim innocence when throwing at a hitter is to throw something with less velocity.) Toronto manager John Gibbons was ejected for arguing that Volquez should have been tossed.
The postgame comments only fueled the rivalry. Volquez said Donaldson “was crying like a baby." Donaldson said he was happy the umpires didn’t eject Volquez, saying, “He was pretty good hittin’, so I’m glad they didn’t.”
Royals manager Ned Yost seemed to blame the Toronto hitters. “They’ve got tremendous power, but they all dive in to the plate, which makes them susceptible to getting hit on inside pitches,” Yost said. “If you continue to throw them away, away, away, away, you’re going to get hammered, you’re going to get killed. You have to utilize the inside part of the plate to open up the outside part of the plate, and it happens.”
And that led Bautista to respond the way any new-school baseball adherent would: a snipe via Twitter.
“Just heard #NedYost comments about the game. Lost a lot of respect for that man today,” Bautista tweeted.
Hmmm. So what we have in the ALCS is a matchup in which the Royals’ Game 1 starter drilled the Jays’ third baseman with a pitch and called him a “crybaby,” to which the third baseman called him “good hittin’”, to which the pitcher’s manager blamed it on the Jays’ hitters, to which one of Toronto's hitters announced he had lost respect for the manager.
Did we mention that these are two best teams in the league, the first such ALCS matchup since Yankees-Angels in 2009? That the team with the most home runs (Toronto) is playing the team with the best bullpen in the league (Kansas City)? That the Royals and Blue Jays have distinct home field advantages because of their crowds? As one Toronto team source said, “Our place is like no other right now. There’s no question it affected Texas in the seventh inning [of Game 5].” Get ready for the fireworks.
“Everybody noticed when Chase Utley was suspended two games,” said Royals outfielder Jonny Gomes. “That told everybody that if you do something out of line, you’re going to miss playoff games. You can’t think, ‘Oh, it’s the playoffs. It won’t cost you any games. They won’t do anything.’ It could cost your team the series if something happens.”
2. Jays' Gibbons faces ex-boss who fired him
When the Royals named Yost as their manager midway through the 2010 season, one of the coaches he inherited on the staff was Gibbons, the bench coach and catching instructor. Both were former No. 1 picks of the Mets, Yost in 1974 and Gibbons in 1980. (They did not play together.)
The partnership did not last long. After the 2011 season, Yost fired Gibbons and pitching coach Bob McClure from his staff. He said at the time that he wanted a coach to work with the organization’s Latin American catchers, including starter Salvador Perez. He hired Chino Cadahia, who was replaced by Don Wakamatsu last year.
“I got along great with Ned,” Gibbons said.
Now Yost and Gibbons are in opposing dugouts as the American League Championship Series begins in Kansas City between Yost’s Royals and Gibbons’ Blue Jays. Reminded of his time with Gibbons, Yost admitted he is a different manager today than he was then.
“I didn’t really listen to my coaches then,” Yost said. “I was groomed under Bobby [Cox], who really didn’t use a bench coach. I guess you are a product of what you know. It wasn’t until I started listening to my coaches that we really had success.”
I asked if he meant late last season.
“Yes. Now I listen to my coaches all the time. Just like with Johnny [Cueto in the ALDS Game 5 clincher]. I was ready to send him back out there for the ninth. We had a two-run lead that became a five-run lead. We had Wade [Davis] hot in the bullpen. And all my coaches told me, ‘You have the best reliever in baseball. He’s hot. Don’t mess around. It’s a playoff game.’ And I listened to them, and they were right.”
After Gibbons was fired, he went home to San Antonio and took a job managing a Double A team, the Missions of the Padres' organization. "It was the first time I was home in the summer in 30 years,” Gibbons told me before the postseason. “I loved it. I was happy to go back. There’s something to be said for waking up, cutting your own grass, going to the ballpark, and coming back home to your own bed. If I never got another [major league] call, I was satisfied.”
The Blue Jays did call again, offering Gibbons a second chance at being their manager, a post he'd held from 2004 to '08. Now, Gibbons has them in the ALCS, where a place in the World Series will go to either Yost or Gibbons.
3. Don't blame Don Mattingly
The better team won. The Mets moved past the Dodgers and into the NLCS because they won two games when they faced Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. But they also did so because New York's front office put together a better roster than did Los Angeles' front office. Today begins the watch on the job security of Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who brought the team to the playoffs three straight years, only to go 8–11, including 6–9 when Kershaw or Greinke started. But when you saw the team around Kershaw and Greinke in this NLDS, you realized the most expensive team ever assembled—$310 million worth of players to play for them and not play for them—was also the least efficient use of money.
It’s going to take time. The new all-star front office, headed by Andrew Friedman, clearly needs more than just one season to fix this Los Angeles team.
The Dodgers did nothing this year to improve the bullpen problems of last season (the 3.80 mark of last season, good for 12th in the league, actually worsened to 3.91 this year, good for 11th). When the team needed help in the rotation, it should have been obvious that the additions of Mat Latos and Alex Wood were underwhelming, which they were (5–9, 4.94 ERA combined). It should have been obvious that Brett Anderson, who hadn’t pitched more than 120 innings in any of the past six seasons, wasn’t going to hold up, and he didn’t (a 6.45 ERA in his final four starts, including the pivotal collapse in Game 3, when he turned a 3–0 lead into a 6–3 deficit before you could blink). And it should have been obvious that the lineup was severely shallow, what with Kiké Hernandez and Justin Ruggiano thrust into key starts, Yasiel Puig getting bulkier and more injury-prone with each day, and the aging, slowing bodies of Carl Crawford, Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins and Utley declining further.
So maybe Freidman and the team's ownership would rather have a manager of their own choosing rather than an inherited one. That’s understandable. But also understand the Dodgers got what was coming because of their roster, not their manager.