Can Johnny Cueto and Kansas City put the ALCS on ice in Game 3, or can Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays finally down the Royals as the series moves to Toronto?
After three of the four Division Series went the full five games, having both League Championship Series open 2–0 is a bit of a drag. Falling behind 3–0 is practically a death knell for a team’s season; you don’t need my spreadsheet of the 165 previous best-of-seven series in major league history to know that the only team ever to come back from a 0–3 deficit was the 2004 Red Sox. Things aren’t that dire yet for the Blue Jays, but even a 0–2 deficit is something just 17% of teams in that position have overcome.
The Royals, meanwhile, are in a familiar position, having swept their way from the wild-card game to the World Series last year. I’ve called them relentless and compared them to a singles-hitting version of the Gas-House Gorillas, and they seem unlikely to take their foot off the Blue Jays’ necks in this game. The Jays will have to push it off, but to do so, they’ll have to defeat the pitcher who dominated the Royals’ Game 5 Division Series win.
• Acquired at the non-waiver trading deadline for a trio of pitching prospects, Cueto joined the Royals with the second-best ERA+ in baseball since the start of the 2011 season among pitchers with 500 or more innings pitched over that span. By the time he entered his Game 5 start in the Division Series, however, he had compiled a 6.44 ERA over his previous 10 starts this season, including Game 2 of the ALDS, to go with a 5.52 ERA in four career postseason starts. But he dominated in Game 5, allowing only a single and a home run in eight innings of work, retiring the last 19 men he faced and not allowing a fair ball to reach the outfield in his final four innings.
The cynical view of that outing is that Cueto was facing an Astros team that had been devastated by coming within six outs of winning the series in Game 4 only to blow the lead. He can silence that criticism by having another strong outing against the best offense in baseball in what is sure to be a raucous Rogers Centre.
• Cueto’s first start as a Royal came in Toronto in the second game of a thrilling four-game set; he turned in a quality start (6 IP, 3 R, 7 K), but the Blue Jays rallied against Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera in the seventh to tie the game and won in the 11th on a walk-off single by Josh Donaldson off lefty Franklin Morales. Donaldson doubled and walked in three trips against Cueto in that game, and Kevin Pillar singled twice in three at-bats. Edwin Encarnacion, meanwhile, is 4-for-7 with a double and a home run over the last two years against his former Reds teammate and Dominican countryman.
• Opposing Cueto will be Stroman, who has a 2.25 ERA in six starts, two of them in the Division Series, since his return from the anterior cruciate ligament tear that erased most of his season. Stroman locked horns with Cole Hamels in the Rogers Centre in both of his ALDS starts and held his own both times, matching Hamels with four runs allowed in seven innings in Game 2 and allowing just two runs in six innings in Game 5, keeping Toronto close enough to rally for the win.
• Stroman’s only career start against the Royals, which came last May, was the sixth of his major league career and saw him hold Kansas City to one run over six innings. Only three members of the Royals' current starting lineup—Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon—played in that game; they went a combined 2-for-9 with a double by Gordon and a single by Hosmer. The only other members of the Royals’ starting nine to have faced Stroman are Ben Zobrist (2-for-6 with a walk) and Kendrys Morales (2-for-3 with a double).
• Of greater concern for Toronto than Stroman is the lineup, which has scored a total of just three runs through the first two games of this series. Leadoff man Ben Revere has yet to reach base in nine plate appearances in this series; Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Encarnacion have yet to collect an extra-base hit; and the Jays as a team have yet to hit a home run after homering in eight straight games, including all five games of the Division Series. The last time Toronto went consecutive games without a home run was Sept. 2 and 4, and only once this season have the Jays gone without a home run in three straight games, that coming on July 8–10. The last of those three games was their first against the Royals this season, a game they lost 3–0 in Kansas City.
• The Blue Jays have faced six Kansas City pitchers in this series, and Yordano Ventura is the only one against whom they have managed to score. They have, however, managed to put a runner in scoring position against each one of the Royals’ big three relievers: Herrera, Madson and closer Wade Davis, and they scored against all three during the regular season. In fact, they scored twice in three innings against Davis during the regular season and handed him his only blown save of the year on July 12. Davis allowed just seven earned runs all year, but two of them were scored by Toronto. Meanwhile, in four regular-season appearances against Toronto, Madson allowed seven runs (five earned) and recorded just five outs.
• The most encouraging thing to come out of Game 2 for the Blue Jays was that two of their injured hitters had multi-hit games. Encarnacion, who is dealing with a sprained ligament in his left middle finger, started and went 2-for-4 and drove in a run. Troy Tulowitzki, who is dealing with a cracked scapula and entered that game hitless in his last 12 at-bats, went 2-for-4 with an RBI double.
• In 1985, when they beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS and won their only World Series, the Royals played all 14 of their postseason games on artificial turf. This will be their first postseason game on turf since then.