The Rangers will have to hope history can repeat itself, sort of. In last year’s series between these same two teams, the Blue Jays lost the first two games in Toronto, then recovered to win the final three, becoming just the third team in Division Series history to follow that script. This year, it’s the Rangers who have been pushed to the brink of elimination at home. After being drubbed, 10–1, in the series opener on Thursday, Texas lost, 5–3, behind a quartet of homers on Friday afternoon, and will now have to mount a comeback the hard way.
Darvish overpowers Blue Jays, until they overpower him
Rangers co-ace Yu Darvish wasn't part of last year's series between the two teams, as he underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2015. The 29-year-old righty returned in late May and put up typically strong numbers (3.41 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 11.8 strikeouts per nine) when he pitched, though an additional five-week absence due to shoulder discomfort limited him to 100 1/3 innings. He hadn't faced the Blue Jays since July 18, 2014—long enough ago that the only remaining regular from Toronto's lineup that day is Jose Bautista. Darvish hadn't made a postseason start since the 2012 AL wild-card game, which the Rangers lost to the Orioles despite his solid performance.
Darvish looked unbeatable during his eight-pitch first inning, with four of his pitches reaching 96 mph, but he immediately found trouble in the second by walking Bautista and fell behind each of the first three Toronto hitters in that frame. Though he struck out Russell Martin on a 95-mph fastball, Troy Tulowizki caught up to a down-and-in heater and drove it over the left-centerfield wall for a towering two-run homer.
A two-out Tulowitzki single was the only other hit Darvish allowed through the first four innings, and the Rangers trimmed the lead to 2–1 in the bottom of the frame, but the fifth was Darvish's undoing. Kevin Pillar led off the inning with a shot into the leftfield corner off an absurdly high fastball. Two batters later, Ezequiel Carrera hit a high fastball to right-center, and then Edwin Encarnacion clubbed one to leftfield. Here’s the feeding frenzy.
It was the first time in Darvish's four-year major league career that he had allowed four homers in a game; only twice had he even allowed three. Between Darvish and Game 1 starter Cole Hamels, the Rangers have gotten just 8 1/3 innings from their pair of aces, who allowed 11 runs in the process; neither had the chance to pitch with a lead.
The Blue Jays ranked third in the AL in home runs (221), with six players hitting at least 20. Of their 20 runs scored in their first three postseason games, 13 have come via their eight homers. That Encarnacion (who led the team with 42 homers) and Bautista (who hit 22) have each hit two apiece isn't terribly surprising, nor was the one by Tulowitzki (24 during the regular season). But Pillar hit just seven in 584 plate appearances during the regular season, and Carrera just six in 310.
A big mistake, a scary moment and a comeback that fell short
Though the Rangers put two base runners on in each of the first four innings and collected nine hits off Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ, they managed just one run against him. In the first, second and third innings, Texas didn't get its second base runner on until there were two outs but strung together three straight one-out hits in the fourth by Nomar Mazara, Carlos Gomez and Ian Desmond.
Happ survived by holding Texas to 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. He walked just one and struck out five in five-plus innings, departing after a leadoff single by Ryan Rua in the bottom of the sixth. Including the outings by Marcus Stroman in the wild-card game and Marco Estrada in the series opener, the Blue Jays' starters have combined to allow just three runs in 19 1/3 innings, with 17 strikeouts and just one walk.
Joe Biagini relieved Happ and pitched 1 2/3 innings, during which the Rangers missed a golden opportunity to score a run. Desmond led off the seventh with a double and took third on Carlos Beltran grounder to second base. Adrian Beltre then grounded to third, where Josh Donaldson would likely have conceded the run had Desmond not hesitated before breaking for home. Donaldson's throw to Russell Martin was high, and the play was close, but Desmond was called out by home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, and the call was upheld via replay review.
It was the second time in as many days that a Desmond hesitation cost the Rangers in a big way; in Game 1, he slowed up on a bases-loaded fly ball by Tulowitzki, which dropped for a three-run triple. Ouch.
Friday's missed opportunity loomed large because the Rangers clawed their way back into the game. Francisco Liriano came on in the eighth and yielded a leadoff double to pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland and a one-out walk to pinch-hitter Robinson Chirinos. Gomez then lined a 98-mph comebacker that grazed Liriano's head and deflected away. Moreland scored, and while Liriano remained upright and waked off the field under his own power, it was a scary moment.
Roberto Osuna, who left the wild-card game in mid-inning due to shoulder tightness and was replaced by Liriano, this time returned the favor. Looking none the worse for wear, he induced Desmond to ground out to shortstop, scoring Jared Hoying, who had pinch-run for Chirinos. Gomez took third on a passed ball, but Osuna came back to strike out Carlos Beltran on an 84-mph slider. While he yielded a leadoff double to Adrian Beltre in the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate, the 21-year-old Osuna managed to blow three 95-mph fastballs past Rougned Odor, got Jonathan Lucroy to pop out and then Moreland to fly out to seal the game. Osuna’s total of seven swinging strikes equaled that of Happ and was one fewer than Darvish.
Including the pre-wild-card era best-of-five series—the League Championship Series from 1969 to '84 as well as the strike-created Division Series in '81—nine teams have come back from two-games-to-none deficits to win in five games, with the asterisks denoting the teams that lost the first two games at home.
1981 NLDS: Dodgers over Astros
1982 ALCS: Brewers over Angels
1984 NLCS: Padres over Cubs
1995 ALDS: Mariners over Yankees
1999 ALDS: Red Sox over Indians
2001 ALDS: Yankees over A's*
2003 ALDS: Red Sox over A's
2012 NLDS: Giants over Reds*
2015 ALDS: Blue Jays over Rangers*
That's nine series out of 120, or 7.5%. What's more, prior to Thursday, 10 teams had allowed 10 runs in a Division Series opener, all of whom lost. Only three of those 10 teams rebounded to win the series: the 1998 Indians (the only Game 1 home team to do so), 2011 Cardinals (the only team to recover to win it all) and '14 Tigers. Meanwhile, six previous teams lost Game 1 by at least nine runs, only two of whom came back to win the series: the aforementioned Tigers and the 2011 Rangers, who were drubbed, 9–0, by the Rays in Game 1 that year—in Arlington, no less. So it's those Rangers and last year's Blue Jays to whom this current Texas team must look to maintain some hope of recovery.