TORONTO — October winked at us Wednesday. “Still got it,” the month seemed to say. In a postseason with only two one-run games out of 30, and in an American League Championship Series in which two Cy Young Award winners and a Cy runner-up have combined to go 0–3 with a 14.81 ERA, October gave us a journeyman named Marco Estrada pitching the game of his life.
Such is the magic of the month. Be it Lavagetto or Larsen, Clendenon or Kennedy, Tenace or Freese, October needs only one game to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Estrada is a 32-year-old–soft-tossing Blue Jays righthander with a 36–34 career record, a level of mediocrity that is not all that bad for a guy who was in A ball at age 23, who was cut at 24 and again at 26 and traded at 31 after giving up the most home runs in the National League. At 6'0", 200 pounds and with an 89-mph fastball and high socks, Estrada has never been leading man material on a big-league mound.
“He looks a little like a high school pitcher out there,” said his manager, John Gibbons. “Just by the way he wears his uniform, the way he throws…"
Estrada turned ALCS Game 5 into his personal property; it is hereby renamed The Marco Estrada Game. He was that good: 7 2/3 innings and one run allowed against what had been a scorching Royals lineup, a row of persistent contact hitters that banged out 30 hits the previous two games. Estrada did exactly what David Price, the much bigger name with the much bigger resume and paycheck, must do in Game 6: Give the Blue Jays another day. Estrada pitched Toronto to a 7–1 win that gives Price that chance in Game 6 on Friday in Kansas City.
This kind of narrative—the story that makes you go, “Now, who exactly is this guy?” in the most important game of the year—doesn’t happen nearly as much in other sports. Baseball, with pitchers and players taking turns, is the most democratic of our games. On Wednesday, it made a king of Estrada.
So good was Estrada that he threw only three pitches out of the stretch among the 108 darts and floaters he used all night. It was the second time in 10 days Estrada took the ball with the Blue Jays facing elimination and with a depleted bullpen behind him. All he did in those two must-win games was to give Gibbons 14 innings with only two runs and one walk allowed.
“Honestly, the only thing that surprised me was the way he pitched in Game 1,” Toronto first baseman Chris Colabello said, referring to a loss in which Estrada still allowed three runs and pitched one out into the sixth. “It’s not even that he didn’t throw well. It’s just that he’s been so lights out for us that this kind of game is what you come to expect.”
Gibbons had the perfect summation of Estrada’s work when he came to take the ball from him in the eighth inning: “Wow.” Colabello had his own salutation in that meeting on the mound, though as he said, “I covered my mouth with my glove because, well, let’s just say I let him know in my own way how big he was for us.”
Said Estrada, “This time around I had a better fastball command. That was the key to this game. The first game I couldn't locate that down and away pitch. Today I threw a lot of good ones. But other than that, you know, changeup and curveball were there, threw some good cutters. But the key was for sure being able to locate that fastball.”
The story of Estrada is one of persistence. He learned the changeup from a Class A teammate, Clint Everts, in 2007 and was waived by the Nationals after the '09 season. He was removed from the 40-man roster by Milwaukee and then traded last November, seemingly destined for long relief duty with Toronto this year. The Blue Jays kept running out young arms to the mound in April, and after none of them stuck, they gave Estrada a chance.
He didn’t exactly run with it. After eight starts, Estrada was 3–3 with a 5.01 ERA. Then, on June 19 against Baltimore, Gibbons had backup catcher Dioner Navarro catch Estrada for the first time; the Jays regard Navarro as one of the finest game-calling catchers in baseball. That night, Estrada threw seven innings and allowed one run. Since that night, paired with his personal catcher, Estrada has been one of the best pitchers in baseball: 11–6 with a 2.58 ERA over 23 starts, postseason included.
I joked with Navarro after Game 5 that I thought I saw Estrada actually shake one of his signs.
“No, that’s only because I gave him the sign to shake,” Navarro said. “The last time he shook me, the guy hit a double. He’s never done it since. He’s so easy to catch. He puts all of his trust in me, which I love. I love to take the heat.”
Now, about that last time he shook a sign. How long ago was that?
“So long ago,” Navarro said, “I don’t remember.”
Estrada threw most of his pitches under stress; it wasn’t until a three-run double by Troy Tulowitzki in the sixth that he had more than one run with which to work. That early run was provided by a Colabello home run off a changeup from Edinson Volquez—the pitch right after Volquez blew a fastball past him.
“I was shocked,” Colabello said. “But I saw him slow up a little bit [on the delivery]. He’s my guy. You know how sometimes hitters just have guys they see well? For some reason, I just see him well.”
Cy Young Award winners Price and R.A. Dickey and runner-up Johnny Cueto have started three games in this series and lost them all, combining for just 10 1/3 innings. To save their season, the Blue Jays gave the ball to Estrada in Game 5 and will do so with Price in Game 6. Both are free agents after the World Series. Estrada, while commanding far less money than Price, has increased his value tremendously. Price? One of the game’s most accomplished lefthanded pitchers has questions to answer.
Price has started seven playoff games and lost every one of them, and he has allowed three or more runs in six of those seven starts. He has never done what Estrada has done twice this postseason: allow fewer than two runs in a start. It’s not as if Price has been getting outpitched by modern-day Koufaxes and Gibsons, either. He has lost games when starting against a fellow Cy Young winner in Cliff Lee (twice), but also against Colby Lewis, Bud Norris, John Lackey, Yovani Gallardo and Yordano Ventura. He draws Ventura again for Game 6.
Estrada once took a no-hitter into the eighth inning this year, but that was in June in front of 18,469 people in St. Petersburg. He has been so good at baffling hitters with his four-seam/changeup combination, which yields swings-and-misses and fly balls by the boatloads, that the batting average on balls in play against him (.217) was the third lowest since divisional play began in 1969, trailing only Jeff Robinson of the '88 Tigers (.209) and Catfish Hunter of the '72 A’s (.211). It’s not that Estrada is a fluke; it’s more that he has been so unknown.
Game 5 changed everything. In an elimination game in the ALCS, Estrada pitched his best baseball at the most meaningful time. But the meaning of The Marco Estrada Game is not yet fixed in perpetuity. Its full meaning, like the Blue Jays’ season, now rests in the hands of Price.