The Toronto Blue Jays have been this road before. Down 2-0, changing venues, and in need of something to keep their postseason hopes alive. On Monday night, the American League Championship Series shifts to Rogers Centre as John Gibbons' squad looks to get back into the best-of-seven series against the Kansas City Royals.
Star right hander Johnny Cueto, boasting a career 3.30 earned-run average, stands in the Blue Jays' way. After joining the Royals from the Cincinnati Reds before the trade deadline, Cueto hardly looked like an ace. In 13 starts, the right-hander pitched to a 4-7 record and a 4.76 ERA. The 101 hits he allowed in 81.1 innings were more than he allowed over 130 innings with the Reds.
But it was Cueto's masterful effort in the deciding game against the Houston Astros in the AL Division Series that should give the Royals confidence they can stave off the Blue Jays. Before the must-win Game 5 start, he guaranteed to his teammates he would pitch well, and then proceeded to toss an eight-inning, two-run gem to advance Kansas City to their second consecutive ALCS.
The Royals are coming off two games in which they won in different ways. Behind a few early runs, Edinson Volquez pitched six scoreless innings and the bullpen allowed just one hit and one walk over the next three innings to win Game 1, 3-0. Toronto's bats rebounded with 10 hits in Game 2, but the Royals were able to erase a three-inning deficit with five runs in the seventh, and one in the eight, for a 6-3 victory.
The Blue Jays are capable of an erupting after leading the league in home runs and runs scored. But so far this series, the heart of the order hasn’t produced the way some may have expected. John Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are a combined 4-for-20 in the first two games with one RBI and seven strikeouts. As a team, Toronto is 3-for-23 with runners in scoring position over the first two games.
Opposing Cueto is Marcus Stroman, a 24-year-old who returned from an ACL tear in September. Stroman shattered timetables in his return, surprising even Dr. James Andrews, who performed his surgery in March. The flame-throwing right-hander made four starts and won them all, giving up five earned runs over 27 innings while striking out 18 and walking six. His last three starts saw him surrender just two earned runs in a span of 22 innings.
In Game 3, Stroman faces a Royals team batting .308 with runners in scoring position including a 5-for-8 mark in Game 2. The lineup is anchored by consistent slugger Kendrys Morales, who has three home runs and eight RBI in seven postseason games. The first five spots in Ned Yost’s order set the pace in Game 2, going a combined 6-for-19.
Stroman has handled high-pressure situations before, after two strong starts against Texas in the ALDS, including the decisive Game 5. He has also allowed just nine walks in his 40 combined innings of the regular season and postseason.
"He's got the `it' factor," Gibbons said of Stroman. "It doesn't mean he's going to go out and dominate (Monday), but you have a great feeling every time he takes the mound because he can pull off something special."
Prediction: The Blue Jays need a strong outing from Stroman, and for the middle of the order of Bautista, Encarnacion, and Chris Colabellos to come up big against Cueto. Toronto's bats are too potent to not put up runs at home and in a critical game. This should be a better overall effort for Toronto compared to Game 1 and Game 2.
Predicted Score: Blue Jays over Royals, 5-2