The Toronto Blue Jays have waited 22 painfully long seasons since Joe Carter’s magical home run to return to the postseason, but that drought ends with the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers starting Thursday night.
Thanks to invaluable trades by general manager Alex Anthopoulos that brought in ace David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays won 40 of their last 58 games in the final two months of the regular season. The end result was a 93-69 overall record and Toronto's first AL East title since 1993, the last time they won the World Series off Carter’s bat.
Toronto enters the five-game series as the heavy betting favorite to raise a World Series banner, but they match up against a Rangers squad that’s played like it’s the playoffs for the last month and completed a major one-year turnaround after finishing with an AL-worst 67-95 record last season.
After prying starter Cole Hamels away from Philadelphia in a massive eight-player deal, Texas held off the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels for the AL West title with only three games left in the regular season, and closed September with a 17-10 run.
The five-game series culminates with Game 1 at Rogers Centre, with Toronto expected to send 18-game winner Price to the mound, while Texas counters with Yovani Gallardo.
Here’s a breakdown of each side’s rotation and bullpens, and their lineups, topped with a series prediction.
For all the credit the Blue Jays lineup has received, their rotation could be one of the more surprisingly effective during the postseason. Price is now 9-1 in 11 starts with Toronto, giving up only 19 earned runs for a 2.30 ERA and going a perfect 5-0 in every start to end September.
But there are plenty of arms behind Price. Game 2 starter Marcus Stroman didn’t even make his season debut until Sept. 12 due to a torn ACL, but the 24-year-old’s ripped through batters for a 1.67 ERA and a 4-0 mark in four starts last month. Game 3 brings in the surprisingly effective Marco Estrada, who leads the team with a 3.13 ERA and 131 strikeouts.
The Texas staff began the season without star Yu Darvish, who underwent Tommy John surgery in March. As a result, the Rangers have largely relied on 17-game winner and strikeout artist Colby Lewis and Gallardo’s 13-11 mark. Hamels has been just as dominate as Price since he headed south, amassing a 7-1 record with 78 strikeouts over 12 starts.
Should the bullpens be the deciding factor, the Blue Jays have a distinctive edge, though neither team’s was very good in the regular season. Toronto’s Robert Osuna has closed out 20 games, with relievers Aaron Sanchez and Brett Cecil combining for 19 of the pen’s 60 holds.
The Rangers plugged along with a batch of relievers that ran up a 4.12 ERA, but opposing batters could only squeeze off a .249 average. Third-year closer Shawn Tolleson’s been a marvel with 35 saves, but no other reliever’s managed more than six. However, Texas’ staff has done wonders in the middle innings, with 22-year-old Keone Kela racking up 22 of the team’s 94 holds.
Here’s the real meat of the series. Toronto blasted into another offensive stratosphere after acquiring Tulowitzki from Colorado and led the majors with 891 runs scored and an astounding 221-run differential. More than a quarter of that production came from an MLB-best 232 home runs.
Tulowitzki missed the last 19 of the last 21 games in the regular season with a cracked shoulder blade but he said Tuesday he’s ready for the ALDS. And ever since he arrived in Toronto and smacked five home runs and eight doubles for 17 RBIs he’s helped protect third baseman and MVP candidate Josh Donaldson.
The 29-year-old Florida native slapped 41 home runs for 123 RBIs and an impressive .297/.371/.568/.939 slash line, and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion powered a combined 79 more home runs and 225 RBIs.
Those three rule atop the Jays lineup, while the Rangers have built their lineup around designated hitter Prince Fielder. He leads Texas in nearly every offensive category (23 HRs, 98 RBIs, 284 total bases, and .305 average) with first baseman Mitch Moreland, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, and third baseman Adrian Beltre all equaling or exceeding the best seasons of their career.
Prediction: The numbers suggest an explosion of offense, but the Rangers struggled in the regular season against the Jays, going 2-4 and scoring only 21 runs in the six meetings. Texas has a chance if they can get to Stroman in Game 2, but otherwise it should be Toronto in 4.