KANSAS CITY — Just two days earlier, the Toronto Blue Jays had been at the edge of the cliff, about to fall off into the dark hole of playoff elimination. After scrambling back from that precipice to reach the American League Championship Series, it must have felt like a reprieve, since Game 1 was just the beginning of what promised to be a long series with the Kansas City Royals—important, yes, but still just an early skirmish in a lengthy war.
But two previously minor concerns now threaten to become major ones for the Jays: the health of third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and the extended slump of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and they could significantly change the course of this series. The issues raised their ugly heads in the Jays’ 5–0 Game 1 loss to the Royals. Encarnacion had to leave the game when he re-aggravated an injury to his right middle finger that has plagued him since August. X-rays were negative, but he was diagnosed with a ligament strain and his availability for Game 2 on Saturday afternoon is in doubt. Suddenly the Blue Jays, favored by many to win the World Series, have something of a crisis on their hands.
“It swelled up a little more than we’ve seen it in the past,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said of Encarnacion’s finger. “Usually in a day or two it calms down and he’s able to get through it. It’s an early game tomorrow, so hopefully he’ll be able to go.”
The Jays surely could have used Encarnacion in the eighth inning when his spot in the batting order came up with two on and one out with Kansas City leading 3–0. But Gibbons had to send up pinch-hitter Justin Smoak, who fouled out to first, followed by a Chris Colabello ground out that ended the Jays’ only real threat. Encarnacion’s further absence would be especially damaging, since Tulowitzki continues to be mostly missing in action. The high-priced shortstop hasn’t hit much at all since the Jays acquired him from Colorado in July—he’s slashing just .239/.317/.380 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 41 games with Toronto—with the notable exception of a three-run homer that helped Toronto avoid a sweep against Texas in the American League Division Series. He was slumping even before he suffered a cracked shoulder blade in a collision with centerfielder Kevin Pillar in September, but he seems to be further hampered by the lingering effects of the injury.
“I know it’s still bothering him,” Gibbons said. “But it’s good enough to play and he wants to play so he’s gutting it out. I tip my hat to him. He’s been struggling with the bat a little, but you can’t just focus on him tonight because everybody got shut down, really.”
It was Kansas City starter Edinson Volquez who did the shutting down, at least through the first six innings. Volquez, always something of a loose cannon, put aside the dust-up he had with the Blue Jays in August, when he hit Jays slugger Josh Donaldson, who was demonstrably angry when Volquez continued to pitch inside. Volquez chose a more colorful way to describe Donaldson’s reaction.
“He’s a little baby,” Volquez had said. “He was crying like a baby.”
Both sides were ready for further tension on Friday, but Volquez and his catcher, Salvador Perez, had a surprise for the Jays. He had said the day before Game 1 that he would not hesitate to pitch inside. But when he warmed up in the bullpen before the game, he and Perez changed their entire game plan.
“[Perez] asked me, ‘How do you feel about pitching down and away?’” Volquez said. “And I said, ‘I feel sexy tonight.’”
Which, apparently, was his way of saying yes.
It took Volquez 111 pitches to navigate his six scoreless innings. He was effectively wild, with four walks, and he frustrated the Jays—or home plate umpire Tony Randazzo did—with borderline strikes.
“Tonight was the Volquez show,” Gibbons said. “He was tremendous. We had a couple of innings there, had a couple of walks and came up empty. He was that good tonight.”
He hasn’t always been that good. Volquez’s career has been a series of swings from good to awful and back again. He was the Reds’ opening day starter in 2011, and he was demoted to the minor leagues before the year was out. He was an All-Star in 2008 and underwent Tommy John surgery in ’09. He was 9–10 with a 6.01 ERA for the Padres in 2013, but rebounded to go 13–9 with a 3.55 ERA for the Royals this season.
“They say you never know what you’re going to get from me,” Volquez says, “but I’m solid now. Tonight was a good sign.”
The Royals needed that kind of sign from Volquez, who had an 8.76 ERA in his three previous postseason starts, because they will probably need at least one more start from him in the series. While Volquez’s immediate future looks bright, even after just one game, the Blue Jays outlook is considerably less rosy than it was nine innings ago. With Bautista and Donaldson they don’t exactly have a pop-gun lineup even without Encarnacion and Tulowitzki’s contributions, but they become much more manageable with two of their most important bats.
“We’ll be fine, we’ll be good,” Bautista said. “This team has shown it doesn’t panic.”
There’s no need for panic, but there is cause for concern. The Jays aren’t at the edge of the cliff, but they know how quickly a team can find itself there, and how hard it is to claw their way back to safety a second time.