Back in July, the Royals and Blue Jays added big-name stars to load up their rosters for a deep postseason run. Looking at their team, the Royals decided they needed a No. 1 starter, and so they gave up a trio of good young pitching prospects to bring Johnny Cueto over from Cincinnati. The Blue Jays also landed an ace of their own in David Price, but they didn’t stop there, also making a big move to bring Troy Tulowitzki north of the border to take over at shortstop and bolster their offense.
To this point, neither player has quite lived up to expectations. Cueto ran a 4.76 ERA after coming over to the American League, and his first-round playoff performance was a mixed bag. Tulowitzki, meanwhile, didn’t hit for the kind of power he’s known for, and after missing most of September due to a shoulder injury, he’s been overmatched by the high-quality pitching teams have thrown at him in the playoffs.
So in the third inning of the third game of the ALCS Monday night, the two July acquisitions met in a moment that looked like it might define the 2015 postseason for one or the other. The Blue Jays already led 3-2 and had a couple of runners on base, but they’d seen the Royals come storming back before, and with Marcus Stroman looking hittable, building a big lead early was going to be important. For Cueto, a double play or strikeout that could let him quash another rally would give him a chance to turn his outing around, as he did after a poor early start in the deciding game of the division series.
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And given how poor Tulowitzki has looked in the playoffs, the Royals had to like their chances. A big part of Tulo’s excellence has been his ability to avoid strikeouts in an era where everyone swings and misses with regularity. In 32 postseason plate appearances this year, however, Tulo had already struck out 10 times, and on Sunday, he looked like he just didn’t want to swing. Despite his pedigree, Tulo hadn’t exactly struck fear into anyone’s heart with his recent at-bats.
So, in the biggest at-bat of the game, Cueto decided to go after him. He threw a first-pitch cut fastball at 88 mph at the top of the strike zone, and Tulo fouled it off. Perhaps emboldened by the shortstop’s inability to get around on a pitch below 90, Cueto decided to challenge him with a 93-mph heater, going even higher up the ladder, to see if he could get a swinging strike to get the count to 0-2. Only, this happened:
That’s 103 mph off the bat, 422 feet out to dead center field. It was only the second ball he’s hit over 400 feet since joining the Blue Jays; the last one came on Aug. 4. Tulo legitimately hadn’t hit a ball this well in three months, but he reminded both teams exactly why the Jays traded for him over the summer.
Most likely, Tulowitzki isn’t at 100 percent, and he probably shouldn’t be expected to hit like he did during his heyday in Colorado. But after a few months of looking like a shell of his former self, the old Tulowitzki emerged and gave the Blue Jays a 6-2 lead. And instead of wiggling off the hook and giving his team innings at the start of a stretch of three games in three days, Cueto allowed the Blue Jays back into the series and forced his manager to burn Kris Medlen the day before they hand the ball to a guy who spent the second half pitching out of the bullpen.
Cueto will have another chance to redeem himself, and that single home run doesn’t mean Tulo is definitely back, but for one at-bat at least, the Jays won the battle of the summer acquisitions. And now they’re back in the series.