Finally, a low-scoring game reliant on pitching performance doesn’t go the Cleveland Indians’ way. That’s some small solace for fans of the Toronto Blue Jays — but the operative word here is small.
A sweep was unlikely for Cleveland, if only because sweeps are unlikely in general — the Jays are a good enough team to win one game out of four from any team in baseball. Combine that with the Indians starting Corey Kluber on short rest for the first time in his career and the Jays facing elimination at home, Toronto had to be the favorite in this specific moment.
The problem they’ve had all series was the inability to get anyone involved in the offense other than Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Michael Saunders — and those three guys only combining for a solo home run here or a one-run double there. That problem wasn’t entirely solved in Tuesday afternoon’s game: those three players had five of the Jays’ nine hits and three of their five runs batted in. And moving forward, it’s hard to envision a comeback effort by the Jays where only these three guys drive the offense, unless they all hit like MVPs. But that was enough for today, and Toronto has to hope it’s enough for tomorrow as well.
The good news for Toronto (beyond the “they’re still playing October baseball” topline) is that it appears some of their supporting pieces might be waking up. Troy Tulowitzki had his first decent game of the series at the plate, with a walk, a hit, and a run scored; Ezequiel Carrera recorded two hits, including his second triple in two days (thanks in no small part to Indians outfielder Brandon Guyer). Russell Martin remains colder than December in the Yukon, but he at least managed a walk himself. Jose Bautista remains the obvious odd man out in this offense — if he turns it on, then maybe the Jays can eke this thing out with just four guys hitting. But even then, winning four straight games is a tall order.
But the Jays are pitching like a team that can do just that. They’ve been playing incredible defense, as well — both Encarnacion and Donaldson made great plays in the field to keep Toronto alive in Game 4, with Donaldson’s magnificent pick-and-throw to get Carlos Santana to end the top of the fifth inning being the one moment fans will remember as the turning point in this series, should the Jays come back: instead of a double into the left field corner possibly scoring Roberto Perez from second, Donaldson recorded the third out of the inning to preserve a 2-1 lead, and the Indians never threatened again.
In fact, Cleveland’s offense has been almost as woeful as Toronto’s all series; it just hasn’t hurt them so much, because they’ve scored just enough to win the first three games they’ve played. Toronto gets Marco Estrada on the mound for their final home game of the ALCS; Estrada held Cleveland to two runs in eight innings in the first game of this series, and has been very solid in the postseason for Toronto ever since coming over from Milwaukee — a playoff ERA of 2.00 in 35.2 IP is quite respectable, and there’s no reason to think he’ll implode now.
With the Indians sending rookie Ryan Merritt — he of 11 total innings pitched in Major League Baseball — to the mound for Game 5, the onus is on Cleveland’s hitters to put this game away. And if they’re going to do that, they’re going to need guys other than Lonnie Chisenhall and Francisco Lindor to step up at the dish. Both Jason Kipnis and Mike Napoli have had their moments in the series, but they’ve been far from consistent; Jose Ramirez, Coco Crisp, and Roberto Perez have worked their behinds off to create scoring opportunities for the Indians, but that’s not enough if the Jays offense has rediscovered their ability to work the count and drop four or five runs on the opposing pitching, even when those pitchers are on their game.
Cleveland isn’t in trouble in this series; far from it. They’re in precisely the right place to be giving a kid like Merritt a spot start in Game 5, secure in the knowledge that even with a loss the series is coming home again after a day off. In the worst case scenario, if the Jays really press it, the Indians are even set up to start Kluber again in Game 7. Nominally speaking, the Indians still have Toronto precisely where they want them.
But the Jays have won a game, now. Cleveland wasn’t able to put them all the way away. Tell Toronto just how unlikely it is that they’ll come back all you wish — the fact remains that if they can KO a rookie, Josh Tomlin, and Kluber on short rest, they’ll be on their way to the World Series, regardless of how good Andrew Miller and the Cleveland bullpen are. Will they do it? Probably not. Can they? We’ll see.