Here's the Blue Jays' blueprint to pull off ALCS miracle comeback vs. the Indians
The door is cracked open after an impressive Game 4 victory to stave off elimination
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays beat the Indians 5-1 in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre on Tuesday, staving off elimination and setting up Game 5 in Toronto. The win also set up another scenario: the Jays becoming only the second team in MLB history to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-7 playoff series.
Here's why, even with long odds against them, a reprise of the 2004 Boston Red Sox is still possible for the 2016 Jays:
The Indians won't have any better-than-average starting pitchers available to start on full rest for the duration of this series.
Corey Kluber did a serviceable job starting Game 4 on short rest, limiting Toronto to two runs in five innings, while striking out seven. Still, by burning Kluber in this game, the Tribe ensures that their Cy Young-caliber ace won't get another start this series on his usual four (or more) days of rest.
Cleveland's other starting options are Josh Tomlin , who has pitched brilliantly since skipping a start in early September but still allowed 36 home runs this season and has never put up better-than-average numbers over a full season; Trevor Bauer , who lasted only two-thirds of an inning in Game 3 before getting pulled with a bloody finger; and Ryan Merritt , the Game 5 starter who has thrown only 11 innings in the majors.
As impressive as the Indians pen was in recording 25 outs Monday night, the laws of regression tell us not to expect that kind of historic performance again. Even with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen rested for Game 5 (and beyond, if necessary), we can't expect them to take on more than 12 outs even in a best-case scenario. There's thus a good chance that one of the Indians starters is going to at least pitch his Toronto counterpart to something close to a draw for the Tribe to advance. That's no sure thing.
A couple of key members of the Jays offense have quietly started producing.
Josh Donaldson 's terrific Game 4 performance will get the ink, as a go-ahead home run and an incredible, run-scoring diving stop should. But the Jays have long needed members of their supporting cast to produce for them to challenge the best teams in the league.
They got that kind of production in Game 4. Michael Saunders and Ezequiel Carrera combined to go 4 for 8, with Carrera whacking his second triple of the series and Saunders continuing a bounceback that started with his opposite-field home run in Game 3. With the lefty rookie Merritt going Wednesday, Melvin Upton Jr. will play instead of Saunders, thus significantly upgrading the Jays' outfield defense. When the Indians inevitably go to their bullpen early, Toronto could thus have multiple viable options to turn to off the bench as they play matchups.
The bullpen has thrived.
The loss of Joaquin Benoit and his 0.38 ERA as a Blue Jay figured to put stress on a bullpen that already had to contend with Jason Grilli struggling late in the season, and Francisco Liriano getting knocked out after a line drive hit him in the head during the Texas Rangers series. That shifted the focus onto Grilli, erratic lefty Brett Cecil , and rookie right-hander Joe Biagini to build an effective bridge to closer Roberto Osuna .
They've answered the call. During the ALCS, that setup trio has combined with Osuna to fire 9 2/3 innings, striking out nine batters, walking two, and allowing four hits without ceding a single run. Cecil's performance in the seventh inning of Game 4, in which he mowed down Jose Ramirez , pinch-hitter Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp in order to preserve a one-run lead and set the stage for two insurance runs in the bottom of the inning, was quietly one of the most important performances by any Jays player this postseason.
If a Jays starter gets knocked out early, that could end the series in a hurry, given how little trust Gibbons has in anyone outside that big four. But Toronto's starting pitching is clearly its biggest advantage over Cleveland in this series, with a rotation so deep that lights-out right-hander Aaron Sanchez (and his ever-evolving 2016 workload limit) lines up as the fourth starter. The best of the Blue Jays bullpen can't match up to the planet-eating Miller, of course. But there's still enough talent here for Toronto to win games in which it's tied heading into the later innings.
The longer the series goes, the more pitching options the Jays will have.
Eight days of waiting pushed Sanchez's prodigious talent out of our minds a bit. But the talented 24-year-old quickly reminded us why he might be the biggest pitching weapon either team can deploy in this series, outside of Miller. Sanchez plowed through Indians hitters, allowing one run on two hits in six innings, while punching out five. The movement on both his sinking fastball and his knee-buckling curve could inspire a million love poems.
The Jays have so far held firm on their commitment to use Sanchez only once per playoff series. But if this one goes the distance, Sanchez lines up as a tantalizing option for Game 7. You could start him on short rest and let him go full-bore for something like 75 pitches. You could bring him in at the first sign of trouble if Marcus Stroman keeps his regularly scheduled starting assignment but struggles a bit early. Or deploy an intentional tandem strategy, where Sanchez and the now healthy Francisco Liriano pitch back-to-back, in either case presenting the Indians with vastly different looks and forcing Francona into some potentially impactful hitting decisions earlier in the game that he might typically want.
All of those hypothetical pitching possibilities for the Jays could be rendered moot if, say, the Indians enter the sixth inning of any of these games up a run or more, and turn the ball over to Miller and Allen. But if the starting pitching matchups go according to expected form, the Jays could potentially dodge that bullet three more times this series.
There's a reason that those 2004 Sox remain the only team ever to pull off the 3-0 comeback: It's damn tough to pull that off against a team that by default is a tough opponent, given its playoff status. Moreover, the Jays didn't get rid of all their problems in one game. Russell Martin took another 0-fer, and Gibbons should seriously consider dropping his hobbled catcher to seventh in the order if the series goes back to Cleveland, so that the lefty-swinging trio of Saunders and Carrera can provide better backing behind the lineup's big four of Jose Bautista , Donaldson, Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitzki . (With Bautista sitting on four hits in eight postseason games, you hesitate to call him a member of a big anything right now, too.)
Still, there's a road map to victory here, and it's the same one that gave the Jays a chance to beat Cleveland before the series ever started: Leverage your starting pitching edge in the first five innings of the game, hope for an Earl Weaver special or two from one of the lineup's big boppers (a perfectly viable playoff strategy, despite what small-ball fetishists would have you believe), and again, stay the hell away from Andrew Miller in a game you're losing.
All things considered, a Toronto surge to the World Series is still a long shot. But this is baseball. We can never say never.