If this continues and the Cleveland Indians go to the World Series, the takeaway will be obvious: A great bullpen anchored by an elite fireman is one of the most potent weapons in the playoffs. Just like an elite team defense behind your starters will be noted as one of the most potent weapons in the playoffs if the Chicago Cubs make the series, and how the world’s best ace pitcher will be trotted out as the linchpin of a successful playoff roster if Kershaw and the Dodgers make their way past Chicago.
This is an understandable reflex, this desire to cast whatever trait defines the team having the most success at the moment as a universal boon, and in fairness, these are all good things to have: excellent bullpens, excellent defenses, and excellent aces all win ballgames. But the sort of success the Cleveland Indians (and the Chicago Cubs) have had in the postseason doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who scored 22 runs in three games against the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, simply cannot hit at the moment. They cannot hit Andrew Miller, the current bullpen god of Cleveland that would win the AL Cy Young running away if voting were held after the postseason rather than before it; but no one can hit Andrew Miller. They cannot hit Corey Kluber, a legitimate Cy Young candidate in his own right, but there’s no great shame in that either.
But Toronto also can’t hit Josh Tomlin, Jeff Manship, Dan Otero, Zach McAllister, Bryan Shaw, or Cody Allen. They’ve scored four runs in 21 innings now against the Cleveland Indians. No matter how good the Indians staff is — and while it is a good staff, it is missing two of its best parts in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — it cannot claim sole responsibility for stifling the Jays this brutally. Toronto has catastrophically failed to execute.
Monday night, the Blue Jays were handed their biggest stroke of luck yet; starter Trevor Bauer’s hand injury sustained while servicing his drone late last week (that will never get less surreal to type) forced him out of the game after four batters, due to him being unable to grip the baseball without introducing a foreign substance to it — that substance being his own blood. While the Indians were hoping for a lot more than two-thirds of an inning out of Bauer, he’d already walked two batters; he was going to have to come out regardless of the state of his stitches, because he was absolutely unable to command the ball. This meant that the Jays got access to the Indians’ bullpen in first inning. This was their moment to turn the series around.
Instead, Otero, Manship, and McAllister — the front end of the Indians’ bullpen — only allowed two runs on four hits over the next three-and-two-thirds innings. All three of those guys have had good seasons, yes, but they also very rarely see action in the second, third, and fourth innings, and McAllister and Manship combined for a 4.3 BB/9 this year. The Jays did not work a single walk out of the pair. Had they put runners on base, they might have managed more than a solo home run from Michael Saunders and a weak RBI groundout by Ryan Goins.
And once the Shaw/Allen/Miller train left the station, the Jays were more or less done. They managed another four baserunners over the remaining four-and-two-thirds innings, but also struck out seven times. Despite Jose Bautista’s complaint during the day off about the “circumstances” allowing the Cleveland Indians to win — a clear reference to what the Jays perceived to be an unfair strike zone for Indians pitching in the first two games of the series — Toronto showed an unwillingness or inability to adjust to the Cleveland relievers. It was their undoing in Game 3, and likely in this series as a whole.
Hope is not all lost yet. The Indians will (likely) attempt to close the series out with Corey Kluber on short rest, which could easily be a disaster, and then if the series continues on to Game 5, Cleveland will have to start Ryan Merritt, a 24-year-old with all of 11 major league innings under his belt. The Indians are definitely in a situation where either the Cubs or Dodgers would appear well positioned to take them to task, given the state of their rotation — but that’s another discussion for another time, and offers no comfort for the Toronto Blue Jays.
It’s unfortunate, because the Toronto pitching staff has been nearly as good as the Indians’ at keep runs off the board. There has been no great showing of offense from Cleveland, either — seven runs in three games, with four of them coming tonight. But the Blue Jays always knew that if they were going to make the Series, their bats would have to lead the way. They haven’t, and so in all likelihood, they won’t.