TORONTO — The manager strolled to the mound, took the ball from the pitcher, and, through the roaring, rumbling din of the 49,325 faithful, said just one word: “Wow.”
And what else is there to say after Game 5 of the ALCS? The Toronto leg of this series has not been high on late-inning drama—three games, three blowouts—but has delivered with unexpected, revelatory performances, particularly from the star-studded, monster-mashing Blue Jays: from Ryan Goins to Kevin Pillar to Chris Colabello (whose second-inning Game 5 homer awakened the Rogers Centre). And now Game 5 will be remembered as the Marco Estrada Game—the game in which Toronto’s 32-year-old starter erased the memory of R.A. Dickey’s Game 4 stinker, saved Toronto’s season, and in the process perhaps made himself some tens of million dollars more on the free agent market—though the man still sounds like someone who’s just happy to be along for this October thrill ride. “I’m just trying to do my job, help these guys win; I’m excited to be a part of this team,” he said, moments after giving hope to a championship-starved nation that a World Series was still possible.
Of the 12 teams to come back from a 3–1 deficit in a best-of-7 postseason series, six did so with road wins in Games 6 and 7. The Blue Jays are two wins from becoming the seventh, and with David Price and Marcus Stroman locked and loaded, on full rest, for two starts at Kauffman Stadium, this suddenly has the feel of a series that’s far from over. After Game 5, in the Blue Jays clubhouse, there was no music blaring, no lingering fog from the smoke machine from a postgame celebration; it was business as usual. The AL East champs were feeling good about their chances; they were feeling good four hours earlier. “We’ve been watching this guy all season do this,” Jose Bautista said of their starting pitcher, “so we still felt confident. He delivered, and now we feel even more confident.”
Just how good was Estrada, in silencing an absurdly hot offense that entered the game as the first team in ALCS history to pound out 15 hits in back-to-back games? He went 7 2/3 innings and faced the minimum, the longest for a starter facing the minimum for an AL pitcher since Don Larsen’s perfect game. It was a master performance from a journeyman who discovered his changeup, now one of the lethal pitches in all of baseball, at A ball at age 23; who was waived by the Nationals in 2010; who went to spring training four years ago on a minor league deal in 2011; who allowed the most home runs in the National League in 2014 (29); who started 2015 in the bullpen after signing a one-year deal with Toronto, the only team that had enough imagination to see any value in a pitcher coming off a disastrous season. GM Alex Anthopoulos, in one of many masterstroke moves over the last year, wanted him badly enough that he gave up Adam Lind for the righthander who’d never won more than seven games over his seven-year career.
Anyone who knows this Blue Jays team knew that Estrada was capable of a game like this. He was one of the best kept secrets in baseball this season, going 13–8 with a 3.13 ERA, ranking sixth in ERA and first in opponents’ batting average (.203—better than Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and Dallas Keuchel). He is a classic fastball-changeup pitcher who keeps it simple. He does not watch video. “I have a pretty good idea of what I’m doing,” Estrada says. His changeup, which has the most drop of any changeup in baseball and is widely regarded as one of the nastiest pitches in the game, is delivered from the same arm speed as the 90 mph four seamer.
Estrada was a 23-year-old in A ball—in Virginia, with the Nats organization—going nowhere when a teammate of his, Clint Everts, a first-round draft pick, showed him his changeup grip, and everything changed. This year, going from the NL to the AL, his ERA drop was the third biggest in the DH era. Estrada was good over his first two postseason starts, allowing four runs over 11 2/3 innings against the Rangers and the Royals in Game 1, but he was great in Game 5, with this final line: 7 2/3 innings, three hits and one walk allowed, five strikeouts, one run allowed. An fringe starter entering this season, he could parlay his big October and cash in big this off-season when he hits the free agent market. “He’s a free agent—the timing is important for him,” said manager John Gibbons after the game. “He had everything going.”
After the game, in the cramped visitor’s clubhouse, where attendants carried heavy bags of gear back and forth, one big topic was umpire Dan Iassogna’s tight strike zone. The way Estrada was pitching, however, the Royals had no chance. “He was absolutely dynamite,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He didn’t miss spots. His changeup was fantastic. He just didn’t give us anything to hit.” Estrada looked unbeatable, and yet there was a lingering sense that Yost did his part in letting this game get away. The Royals only trailed by a run when the bottom of the sixth began. Edinson Volquez was cruising but issued a leadoff walk to Ben Revere before hitting Josh Donaldson with a fastball on the elbow. Kansas City has the best bullpen in baseball, a shutdown trio in Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis, but Yost stuck with Volquez, even after a walk to Jose Bautista. Volquez walked the next batter, Edwin Encarnacion, too, and it was 2–0. Perhaps two batters too late, Yost then went to Herrera, who gave up the three-run double to Troy Tulowitzki that broke the game open.
You can’t rip Yost for sticking with a pitcher who was as dominant as Volquez, but with the best bullpen in the game, the moment still could have been a missed opportunity to keep the game close. “I thought he still had good stuff,” Yost said, defending his decision. “We had Herrera there. They hadn’t scored. Eddie’s fastball had all kinds of life. We were looking for a double play ball, quite frankly, with all the movement on it—we just didn’t get it.”
Not only did Toronto win, but it won without having to turn to its ace to save a depleted bullpen. And now the Blue Jays go to Kansas City with Price and Stroman to face the Royals’ duo of Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto in Game 7, if the series goes that far. On the board in the Blue Jays clubhouse, the words read: KANSAS CITY TRIP. DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT. The Blue Jays are headed back south of the border for what’s shaping up to be an epic conclusion to the series.