Blue Jays, still on brink of defeat, now poised to send ALCS back to Cleveland
By Jon Tayler/Sports Illustrated
As the Blue Jays try to make history against the Indians in the ALCS, they must contend with the grim numbers of championship series past. Since the LCS expanded to a best-of-seven format in 1985, only three teams that have fallen behind 3-games-to-0 have even managed to force a Game 5: the ’98 Braves, the ’99 Mets and the 2004 Red Sox. Of those three, only Boston was able to complete the comeback; the Red Sox remain the only team in major league history, however, to do so.
But while the odds may be against Toronto, the path to a comeback isn’t as bad as it seems. On Tuesday night in Game 4, the Blue Jays’ offense finally awoke from its series-long slumber, putting up five runs on Corey Kluber and the Indians’ bullpen (albeit with Kluber on short rest and with relief aces Andrew Miller and Cody Allen not getting into the game). That could be enough of a positive sign that Toronto is finally ready to make this a series. But the Blue Jays also have one major factor in their favor.
Throughout the early stretch of the playoffs, Cleveland’s diminished rotation depth (thanks to injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar) was an issue the Indians were able to avoid. They swept the Red Sox in the Division Series without using the likes of Mike Clevinger or rookie Ryan Merritt in a playoff game, and the quick series victory bought them time to line up Kluber for ALCS Game 1, in which he shut out the Blue Jays for 6 1/3 frames in a 2-0 Cleveland win. But Game 4’s loss threatens to finally expose the Indians' pitching problem: In Game 5 Cleveland will have to turn to Merritt, who has made just four appearances in the major leagues.
A 24-year-old lefty from McKinney, Texas, Merritt was a 16th-round pick of the Indians in 2011. Merritt doesn’t throw hard—his fastball is between 87 and 91 mph—and he doesn’t miss bats, with a career minor league strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine. What he does boast is good command, having walked just 1.4 per nine in his six-year professional career. But Merritt has only 11 major league innings to his name, all coming this season, when he spent a few days scattered across the season as a reliever before making his lone start of the year on Sept. 30. In that outing, he held the Royals to one run in five innings, striking out four and walking none while picking up the win.
It isn’t hard to imagine someone with Merritt’s stuff and lack of experience struggling mightily against a Blue Jays team that feasts on soft fastballs (Toronto hit .273/.344/.467 against finesse pitchers in 2016) and in a Rogers Centre environment of 50,000-plus loud and desperate fans. His hook will be quick, and the Jays can expect to see Miller at the first sign of trouble. But the pitching matchup is still tilted heavily in their favor, with Marco Estrada—who allowed just one run in a complete-game loss to start the series—on the mound for Toronto.
The matchups also likely favor the Jays going forward. While Josh Tomlin was solid in Game 2, that performance was reliant upon command of his curveball—which he has struggled to command consistently this year. Opposite Tomlin in Game 6 will be Toronto’s 20-game winner, J.A. Happ, who has been solid (if unexceptional) in his two postseason turns to date. If the Blue Jays can push the series to Game 7, they’ll find Kluber waiting for them—but the righthander would be making his second straight short-rest start this series and third of the postseason already. Toronto already beat him once on short rest, and it’s worth wondering how much stamina Cleveland’s ace has left now that he's thrown 233 1/3 innings this year.
This is by no means a prediction or a guarantee that Toronto will get that far. Again, the history of the postseason is littered with the bones of teams that dug themselves too deep a hole and couldn’t get out. But by forcing a Game 5, the Blue Jays have exposed the Indians’ biggest weakness, and now they are primed to take advantage.