Estrada, timely hitting help Blue Jays prevail against Royals in ALCS Game 5

1:08 | MLB
Blue Jays beat Royals 7-1 in Game 5, stay alive in ALCS
Wednesday October 21st, 2015

The Blue Jays’ postseason has been anything but a cakewalk. Forced to climb out of a two-games-to-none hole in the Division Series against the Rangers, they found themselves facing elimination yet again via Tuesday night’s blowout loss, this time down three games to one. With an eye toward becoming the eighth team to come back from such a deficit in the LCS to reach the World Series, they took the first step toward that goal on Wednesday afternoon via a 7–1 win at the Rogers Centre. That sends the series back to Kansas City, where on Friday night, they’ll again attempt to prevent the Royals from claiming a second straight pennant.

Here are three thoughts from Wednesday's game:

Estrada shines

Just as he did in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Rangers, Marco Estrada gave the Blue Jays a stellar start in an elimination game. Through six innings, he faced the minimum 18 batters, allowing only a fourth-inning single by Alcides Escobar that was quickly erased by Ben Zobrist grounding into a double play. In all, he gave the Jays 7 2/3 innings of three-hit ball, with Sal Perez's eighth-inning solo homer the only blemish on his line.

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For the afternoon, Estrada threw 108 pitches and generated 15 swings and misses—10 of them with the changeup, three more than in that aforementioned Division Series start—and struck out four. As I noted previously, Estrada threw his changeup 28.1% of the time in 2015, a higher rate than all but two qualified starters, and generated swings and misses on 21.2% of those pitches, by far his highest rate. That latter rate was up to 31.3% (10 out of 32) on Wednesday.

What’s more, Estrada was particularly efficient, needing no more than 14 pitches in any frame until the seventh, when he threw 17. That was of particular importance given the battered state of the Blue Jays staff after back-to-back slugfests in Games 3 and 4. With Liam Hendriks (59 pitches), Ryan Tepera (38 pitches) and Mark Lowe (29 pitches) all having emptied the tank during Tuesday night’s blowout, Aaron Loup unavailable due to a family emergency, Latroy Hawkins revealed as a piñata, and Brett Cecil off the roster due to a calf strain (no word on the status of Cliff Pennington), manager John Gibbons' top relief option aside from late-gamers Aaron Sanchez and Robert Osuna was David Price, who after starting Game 2 was in line to start Game 6. Had he come into the game, manager John Gibbons likely would have been forced to start Marcus Stroman on three days' rest instead. 

As he did in Game 4 of the Division Series, Gibbons had Price warming up despite a big lead; this time, it came in the seventh, when the Jays led 5–0. Gibbons resisted the temptation to bring in his ace to face lefty Eric Hosmer after Estrada issued a two-out walk in the seventh, and went to Sanchez in the eighth after the Perez homer and an Alex Gordon single. That should leave Price in line for Game 6, with Stroman to start Game 7 if the Blue Jays push the series further.

Big blows

The game's first run came via Chris Colabello's second-inning solo homer, off an 87 mph changeup that Edinson Volquez left in the middle of the plate: 

It was Colabello's second homer of the postseason; he hit one off the Rangers' Derek Holland in Game 4 of the Division Series. The 31-year-old righty is batting .286/.324/.543 this October, after a surprisingly strong .321/.367/.520 showing with 15 homers in 360 PA during the regular season. Not too shabby for a player who spent the first seven years of his professional career (2005–2011) knocking around the independent Canadian-American League, primarily with the Worcester Tornadoes, and then three years in the Twins organization, during which he hit .214/.284/.364 with 13 homers in 401 major league plate appearances.

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Toronto’s 1–0 lead stood up until the sixth, when the Blue Jays broke the game open against a flagging  Volquez, who had allowed just three other baserunners besides the Colabello homer through the first five frames: a second-inning walk of Dioner Navarro, and infield singles by Jose Bautista in the fourth and Kevin Pillar in the fifth. During the sixth, Volquez struggled with his command, home plate umpire Dan Iassogna​’s strike zone, and a lineup that had already seen him twice on the afternoon. He walked Ben Revere to start the frame, hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch, walked Bautista on a borderline knuckle curve at the end of a 10-pitch battle that had included five straight foul balls, and then forced in a run via an Edwin Encarnacion walk.

That forced manager Ned Yost to give Volquez the hook after 88 pitches. Kelvin Herrera—who probably should have come on to start the frame, given the third-time-through-the-order penalty and a bullpen where nobody had been taxed the night before—came on and struck out Colabello, but Troy Tulowitzki cleared the bases with a double to centerfield.

It was the fourth straight game in which Tulowitzki collected at least one hit. Including his eighth-inning single, he's gone 7-for-15 with three extra-base hits and seven RBIs over that span. Prior to that, he had started the postseason by going 2-for-25, with only a big homer in support of Estrada in Division Series Game 3 to point to as a positive contribution, and of course he was contending with having come back quickly from a cracked shoulder blade. At least judging by the way he’s swinging the bat, he’s finally closer to full health.

Royals starters struggling

Volquez, the Royals starter, lit up the radar gun, with his sinker averaging 96.2 mph—nearly two mph higher than his season average of 94.3 — and and reaching a season-high 98.6 mph in the second inning, according to Brooks Baseball. That extra oomph may have caused him to run out of gas. The 32-year-old righty threw just 64 pitches through the first five frames, but he burned 24 without retiring a batter in the sixth.

Inside the game-winning rally that put the Royals up 2-0 in the ALCS

Ultimately, Volquez was charged with five runs in his five-plus innings, pushing the Royals rotation's postseason ERA to 5.97, the fifth-highest of any team that has reached the LCS during the wild card era. Via StatsPass, the highest postseason ERAs of any rotation to make it into the World Series belong to the 2002 Giants (5.58), 1997 Marlins (5.40), 2002 Angels (5.38) and 2004 Cardinals (5.20); those numbers include their performances in the World Series.

Limiting the focus to just the LCS during its best-of-seven era (1985 onward), the Royals rotation's 7.04 ERA is higher than all but one team that reached the World Series. The 2003 Marlins' rotation was tattooed for a 7.20 ERA. Other ugly ones that got through include those of the 1992 Braves (6.29), 2004 Red Sox (6.11) and 2008 Phillies (6.04). The Royals have yet to get that far, obviously. A strong start from Yordano Ventura in Game 6 would give their chances a big boost.

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