The Toronto Blue Jays still have a long way to go, but Game 4 of the ALCS showed why they might just have a chance.
The Blue Jays got an outstanding start from Aaron Sanchez, three scoreless innings from their bullpen, a homer from Josh Donaldson and another key late-inning hit from Edwin Encarnacion. Instead of a majestic walk-off homer, it was a grounder up the middle that hit the top of the mound and popped into shallow centerfield.
It wasn’t as dramatic as the typical Blue Jays clutch hit, and it certainly didn’t land 450 feet away, but it drove in the two runs that expanded a one-run lead into a 4-1 advantage in the seventh inning. Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna got the last six outs without allowing a baserunner, and the Indians will have to try again to clinch the series on Wednesday.
After beating Corey Kluber in Game 4, the Blue Jays will have an enormous pitching advantage in Game 5. They will start Marco Estrada, who pitched very well in Game 1 and is on normal rest, while the Indians have Ryan Merritt. Merritt has started one major league game and pitched 11 MLB innings, but he’s the last pitcher standing for Cleveland.
Merritt last pitched on Sept. 30, getting his first major league win in a meaningless game against the Kansas City Royals. He went five shutout innings in that start, but with 18 days off and no postseason experience, the Blue Jays will have to get to him early and often.
That would leave the game in the hands of the Cleveland bullpen, which has pitched 11.2 innings in the last two days. Terry Francona didn’t have to use Andrew Miller or Cody Allen in Game 4, but Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero both got into the game.
At this point, the Blue Jays have to be heavily favored to get the series back to Progressive Field, but if they do, it will take two road wins to pull off the second comeback from 3-0 in baseball history. That won’t be easy in a city that has found the sudden ability to win championships.
Sanchez is the biggest reason that the Blue Jays still have a chance. The 24-year-old allowed one run on two hits in six innings, shutting down a Cleveland offense that had been delivering in every postseason game.
“I just wanted to stay in the moment and not let my emotions get too high,” he said. “I knew I needed to stay underneath myself and just execute my pitches. I was happy to hand it to the bullpen, because they’ve shown in the last few months how good they are.”
Donaldson hit his homer in the third and made a huge defensive play moments later in the fifth, but it was Encarnacion who clinched the game in the seventh. With runners on first and third and no one out, Francona intentionally walked Donaldson to load the bases, hoping for a double play that included an out at the plate.
He almost got it — Encarnacion hit the ball closer to Shaw than he would have liked — but the big hop off the mound drove in two runs and gave the Blue Jays the late-inning lead they’ve needed. This time, it was their bullpen that finished off a game.
Now they have to do it all over again on Wednesday.