TORONTO — They call him Go-Go. He’s not sure where it came from, and the nickname can seem a little off, given that utilityman Ryan Goins—defensive maestro, ninth-place hitter—is rarely the man that makes this juggernaut lineup go.
The eighth man in the lineup is Superman, Kevin Pillar. Not long ago, before he was doing Devon White impersonations and saving the Blue Jays with one death-defying catch after another, Superman was a fourth outfielder on this very team.
The dude hitting sixth, Troy Tulowitzki, is one of the best all-around players on the planet, but with a bum shoulder, he has been more of a cipher lately.
They can seem like bit players on this star-studded team, overlooked, sometimes forgotten. Game 3 of the ALCS, an 11–8 win by the Blue Jays, was a reminder after a pair of deflating losses in Kansas City of why this Toronto offense is so scary good, and why the Blue Jays were never going to go quietly in the night. It was a game in which the all-universe heart-of-the-order did their usual thing—Josh Donaldson rocked his third home run of the postseason, Jose Bautista drove in a run on his 35th birthday, Edwin Encarnacion went 2 for 5—while the guys at the bottom of the order did the most damage: Tulowitzki, Pillar, and Goins went a combined 5 for 12, scored six runs and drove in seven in a win to essentially save Toronto’s season. On a night of resounding statements across the country—Election Night in Canada!—the one delivered at the Rogers Centre was loud and resounding: “The ALCS is far from over. Things are just starting to heat up.”
On Monday night, the Rogers Centre was rocking, just as it was during the ALDS, just as it was for every big game down the stretch this season. On a gray, blustery day in Toronto, a crackling energy pulsed through the city, and it wasn’t because of election night (A sign in the leftfield stands read, “Anthopoulos for Prime Minister,” and yes, after this October, GM Alex Anthopoulos could probably be elected PM of Canada). Toronto was hosting its first ALCS game since 1993, and fans wearing bright blue shirts squeezed through the downtown’s rush hour crowds, toward the ball park and they showed up ready to party. They serenaded Royals pitchers all night long, even after they’d bid adieu, they sang happy birthday to Bautista as he drew a walk in the sixth, they exploded when Salvador Perez grounded out to end the Royals’ furious four-run ninth inning rally.
Of all the heroes of the night—the hobbled Tulo with his home run in the third; Superman with an RBI double, to go with a superhero catch and slide; Marcus Stroman with his first career postseason win—Goins was the unlikeliest. The 27-year-old Texan had been front and center this series, but until Game 3, it was for all the wrong reasons. It was two days ago that he made the misplay that cost Toronto Game 2 in Kansas City, waving off Bautista in rightfield and letting Ben Zobrist’s fly ball to drop to the Kauffman Stadium grass, a play that led to the Royals’ five-run rally against David Price. In Game 3, he came through with one of the biggest hits of the game: a two-out single to give the Blue Jays a 2–1 lead in the second. The 5'10" infielder who hit five home runs in 376 at bats this season added a fifth-inning home run in the fifth. It’s the beauty of October: one day you’re the goat, the next you’re the hero.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to be sitting up here right now next to him after that game in Kansas City,” said Tulowitzki, on the podium after the game. “I think everybody in that locker room had his back. But for tonight, him to be putting together the at-bats he did, play the great defense, he deserved it, because he didn’t put his head down. He focused on the next game and that’s what you do.”
Said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons: “He’s been carrying that load around a little bit. It was really the perfect game for him. He’ll feel much better about himself.”
Added Stroman: “Just seeing what Go-Go did, that was huge—seeing how he bounced back from all that scrutiny that was going on the last game. To see him go out and get us started, get a homer and make the unbelievable plays that he does day-in and day-out—it’s just special just to have him back there behind me, and to know that he rebounded like that.”
Yes, this was Go-Go’s redemption—the redemption of a player who’d quietly been one of the most valuable players on this team over the season’s last two months, providing timely hits to go with his elite defense. During a stretch in June and July, he tinkered with his stance, making an adjustment to put his bat on his shoulder before setting up his swing. This was also the return of the Toronto way. It had been 82 at-bats since the Blue Jays last hit a home run after Jose Bautista’s shot, and bat flip, heard around the world in ALDS Game 5 against the Rangers. After Goins got the Blue Jays going in the second, Toronto in the bottom of the third went on an onslaught that lasted 19 minutes and 34 pitches, in which they scored a franchise postseason-record six runs on nine hits and two walks.
It was Toronto’s night, but it was the who Royals struck first: Alcides Escobar hit a dying liner to rightfield, where it fell in front of a charging Bautista. The ball seemed to kick away from Bautista, off the turf that can play like a trampoline, and Escobar raced around to third without a throw. Escobar scored on a Zobrist groundout, and after three pitches the Royals were up 1–0, and with Royals’ ace Johnny Cueto on the mound, you quickly felt the Rogers Centre tense up.
There may not be a player with more at stake this postseason than Cueto. Not only was he hailed as the new ace of the Royals when he arrived in Kansas City in July, the missing piece in their championship pursuit, but he’ll also be a free agent this winter, and every postseason start could represent a swing of tens of millions of dollars. Cueto was at his best in the winner-take-all ALDS Game 5 in Kansas City last week, and it was anyone’s guess which Cueto would show up in Game 3—the swaggering, shoulder-shimmying, quick-pitching, dominator who can look like the best pitcher on the planet, or the guy who was missing his spots the last two months of the regular season.
From the first pitch of the night, chants of “Cue-to!” rained down, the Toronto crowd attempting to rattle Cueto, taking inspiration from PNC Park from the 2013 NL wild-card game. In the second, the chants escalated to a deafening level after Goins’s single and as Cueto walked Ben Revere. Cueto showed much better velocity in Game 5 than he did down the stretch. He consistently hit 94 mph on the radar gun, but his command was just not there for Cueto on Monday night. His pitch to Tulowitzki was a fastball, up in the zone, and Tulowitzki, who feasts on high heat, rocked it over the centerfield wall to make it 6–2; the flood gates were open. Cueto allowed six hits, four walks and eight runs over 69 pitches in just two-plus innings—a disastrous outoing that once again raises questions over whether Kansas City can trust him in a big game (he’s scheduled to pitch a potential Game 7 of the series).
“He couldn’t command the ball down,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. “He was up all night long. Just really struggled with his command. Got his pitch count up and just couldn’t make an adjustment.”
After the game in the Royals’ clubhouse, it was all about turning the page to Tuesday’s Game 4, a fascinating matchup between two veterans: 36-year-old, 6'10" Chris Young, who turned in one of the most astonishing pitching performances of the postseason when he struck out seven Astros in four innings of relief in Game 1 of the ALDS, and R.A. Dickey, the 40-year-old knuckleballer who was very good in his first career postseason start, Toronto’s Game 4 win over the Rangers (he gave up one run over 4 2/3 innings). Before Game 3 Dickey was entertaining, insightful and introspective during his 10-minute pregame press conference, opining on everything from the popularity of the knuckleball (“It’s kind of like that old pair of socks that you can’t ever get rid of—there seems to be always one”) to the pitcher he’s facing, a former teammate from his Mets days (“He’s got a great mind—it’s fun to be around guys like that who are well read and who you can have deeper conversations with”).
Dickey was 8–1 with a 2.80 ERA after the All-Star break, and the last time he faced Kansas City, he tossed seven shutout frames in a 5–2 victory in August. He’s doesn’t have the repertoire of Price or Stroman, but he has the capability of a big performance, and you have to like his chances against Young, a fly-ball pitcher facing a team that makes a living hitting baseballs in the air and out of the ballpark. With a 2–1 lead in the series, the Royals still hold the edge, but Game 3 was a reminder that the Blue Jays are here for a reason. It was a reminder that this is far and away the best offense in baseball, especially when they play at home in their launching pad, and it’s not just because of the sluggers atop the lineup.
If the Royals are going to make it to a second straight World Series, they’ll have to silence Toronto’s entire lineup, from leadoff all the way to the man hitting ninth. And that may very well turn out to be an impossible task.