After rebounding from a two-games-to-none-deficit in the American League Division Series against the Rangers, the Blue Jays came into Monday night having dug themselves a similar hole to start the ALCS. This time, however, they had their frenzied fan base behind them at the Rogers Centre, waiting to erupt if things went well—and they did, as the Jays pounded out an 11–8 victory on the strength of three home runs.
Here are three quick thoughts on the game:
Short night for Cueto
After a dominant start in the division-series clincher against the Astros, Royals starter Johnny Cueto struggled with his command on Monday night, pitched his way into multiple jams and was punished for it by Blue Jays hitters. Cueto threw 25 pitches in each of the first two innings, managed first-pitch strikes to just eight out of 15 batters who did not put the ball in play and was knocked out in the third without retiring any of the five batters he faced, on the short end of a 7–2 score.
Along the way, the 29-year-old righty was forced to contend with a boisterous crowd of 49,751 taking a page from the 2013 wild-card game at PNC Park by chanting “Cue-to! Cue-to!” in sing-song fashion. Meanwhile the pitcher and catcher Salvador Perez took steps to safeguard their signs even with the bases empty to counter the Blue Jays’ alleged sign-stealing. Whether or not those things distracted Cueto, the results were unflattering because the bottom line is that he couldn’t put hitters away.
The Jays didn’t collect a hit in the first, but Jose Bautista worked a two-out, six-pitch walk and Edwin Encarnacion ate up eight pitches in the process of striking out, just the second of two K’s the K.C. starter collected. The centerpiece of Toronto’s three-run rally in the second inning was Ryan Goins’s nine-pitch plate appearance with two men on base: Troy Tulowitzki, who had singled (ending Cueto’s streak of 24 consecutive batters without a hit), was on third, while Kevin Pillar, who had reached via a force out and then stolen second base uncontested, was on second. Goins battled back from an 0–2 hole and singled to leftfield, bringing home both runners. The high-decibel hysteria continued as Ben Revere followed with a walk, his first time reaching base in 11 plate appearances this series, and then Josh Donaldson drove in Goins with another single.
Things got even worse for Cueto in the third inning. Encarnacion singled, Chris Colabello walked and then Tulowitzki clubbed a three-run homer to centerfield off a high 93-mph fastball, his second homer of the postseason. After a visit to the mound by pitching coach Dave Eiland, Russell Martin worked a six-pitch walk, the fourth surrendered by Cueto. Pillar’s RBI double to centerfield ended Cueto’s night at 69 pitches, with Royals manager Ned Yost calling upon Kris Medlen, who hadn’t pitched since Oct. 1. While Medlen struck out Goins and induced Revere to ground out, he served up a fat curveball to Donaldson, who launched his third homer of the postseason. Here are the two home runs:
The result was a 9–2 lead for the Blue Jays, with eight of those runs charged to Cueto.
Rough birthday for Bautista, but teammates pick him up
Coming into the game, there was much talk about Bautista having the opportunity to become just the fourth player ever to hit a postseason homer on his birthday. Instead, he looked every day of his 35 years, coming up short on two hard-hit balls to the outfield that led to runs and going hitless in his first four plate appearances before collecting a garbage-time RBI single in the eighth, his first hit of the series.
The slugger’s night was rough from the get-go. Royals leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar blooped Marcus Stroman’s second pitch of the game to rightfield, and Bautista dove for the ball unsuccessfully; it ricocheted away, and Bautista briefly lost track of it, leading to a triple. Escobar scored one pitch later on Ben Zobrist’s groundout.
In the fifth, Zobrist hit a Stroman pitch to deep right, one that Bautista could not reach with his outstretched left arm. It fell for a double, sending Escobar, who had singled, to third. Each runner moved up 90 feet on a subsequent wild pitch, and then Zobrist scored as well on Mike Moustakas’s single, trimming the lead to 9–4.
Fortunately for Bautista, who was serenaded by the crowd with “Happy Birthday” during his sixth-inning plate appearance, his teammates picked him up. Coming into the game, Donaldson, Bautista and Encarnacion, the Jays’ 2-3-4 hitters, had combined to go 4 for 22, albeit with five walks, thus far in the series. On Monday, the trio went a combined 5 for 12 with three walks and four RBIs.
Meanwhile, Goins—the goat of Game 2 after his misplay of Zobrist’s pop-up opened the door to a five-run rally, and the apparent target of Bautista’s postgame ire (a story that was quickly refuted)—redeemed himself not only with the aforementioned two-run single but also a solo homer in the fifth, and several excellent defensive plays.
Stroman was not at his best, slogging through 6 1/3 innings while being peppered for a career-high 11 hits and four runs. Via Baseball Savant, a whopping 11 of his pitches with which the Royals made contact resulted in exit velocities of 100 mph or above, tied for the third-highest single-game total this year. Oddly enough, it was Cueto who allowed the season high of 16 on Sept. 13 against the Orioles, though he yielded just three on Monday night.
Stroman netted just three swings and misses from among his 94 pitches, and finished with one strikeout as well as one walk. His 35 game score tied the Cardinals’ Chuck Finley’s 2002 NLCS Game 3 start for the third-lowest mark of any starting pitcher to notch a postseason win since 1969, with only the Mets’ Oliver Perez’s NLCS Game 4 start in 2006 (33) and the Giants’ Kirk Rueter’s NLCS Game 1 start in 2002 (29) worse.
Beggars can’t be choosers, however, and with the Blue Jays desperately needing a win, and hoping not to deplete their already shorthanded bullpen (which wound up allowing four ninth-inning runs) with games to follow on Tuesday and Wednesday, they’ll take it.