Blue Jays take long twisting road to ALCS

By: Andrew Hendriks

Canadian Baseball Network

TORONTO – No one said it was going to be easy.  Was it a possibility? Absolutley. But having to face a surging Texas Rangers squad, one that finished up the regular season by winning 20 of their final 32 games, the task was poised to be far from just another walk in the park for the American League East Champions.

The Blue Jays found that out early, dropping both of their first two ALDS games at home prior arriving in Arlington and immediately facing what could have been an unexpected early exit for major league baseball’s top offense.

With their backs against the wall, the Jays stormed into Texas and used their potent bats to hammer out back-to-back wins in the Lone Star State, setting up what promised to be a dramatic finish as the series shifted back to Canada for Game 5.

Similar to the series as a whole, Wednesday’s game spared no expense with regards to explosive dramatics and ink-worthy narrative.

In one corner, you had Marcus Stroman. Toronto’s high-spirited right-hander who, despite tearing his ACL during a bunt drill last March, predicted his heroic return in a tweet sent days after undergoing what many thought would be a season ending surgery for the 24 year-old hurler.

In the other dugout stood the pesky Texas Rangers. A well-blended ball club that, despite making it to the post season for a fourth time in five years, had yet to secure it’s first World Series title.

As some 11.5 million Canadian’s tuned in at various points throughout the three and a half hour contest, tensions were at an all-time high while the fate of two equally impressive seasons hung in the balance.

For the Rangers, early game excitement quickly gave way to the harsh reality of do-or-die baseball during the 53-minute seventh inning.

Following one of the most bizarre occurrences in postseason history, a string of ill-timed  errors and what will easily be remembered as the most impactful three-run blast since Joe Carter “touched ‘em all” in ’93, it was the Blue Jays who emerged victorious when the smoke cleared and the champagne started to flow at Rogers Centre, Wednesday night.

With the come-from-behind effort having symbolically punched their ticket to Game 1 of the American League Championship Series this Friday, Toronto will square off against a familiar postseason foe in Kansas City, who like their CS rivals, also defied the odds and erased their own disheartening deficit in Game 4 vs. the AL Wild Card Houston Astros.

DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK

Like Toronto, the Royals also faced elimination in Game 4 on Monday night. Down by four heading into their half of the eighth at Minute Maid Park--a venue where the ‘stros have been downright dominant in 2015-- Kansas City rallied for five off Houston’s bullpen, taking the lead and ending up with a 9-6 victory over their DS opponents.

Eerily similar to Elvis Andrus’ clanked ball at short on Wednesday, the Royals offensive explosion was ignited by a Carlos Correra error in the late innings of that Game 4 tilt. “I wish I was perfect” explained Correra following Monday night’s loss. “I wish I could do everything perfect, but I’m not. I’m human”.

HISTORY REPEATING

It’s been 30 years since the Blue Jays, fresh off a franchise-best 99-win campaign, took the field for the first time during postseason action on a breezy night at Exhibition Stadium.  On the hill, ace right-hander, Dave Stieb dominated, allowing only three hits over eight innings of work en route to earning an early advantage in the freshly expanded best-of-seven series.

His opponent? The Kansas City Royals.

That matchup would see the Jays charge ahead, winning three of the first four contests and taking a commanding lead prior to coming unglued at the hands of both Jim Sundberg and Hall-of-Famer George Brett.

Had postseason expansion waited just one more year, the Blue Jays would have been in their first World Series in franchise history. Instead, the dropped all three of the remaining games and would be forced to wait another seven years before reaching the pinnacle in ’92.

DO I KNOW YOU?

When John Gibbons was unceremoniously relieved of his duties following a rough start to the 2008 campaign, the Blue Jays manager had leaned heavily on the services of then Toronto right fielder, Alex Rios.

A few months removed from his split with Toronto, Gibbons was added to Ned Yost’s coaching staff in Kansas City and began his career with the Royals as a Bench Coach in October of 2009.

Following his departure, Rios, who now patrols the outfield for KC, struggled to find the type of consistency he once had while under the watchful tutelage of Gibbons from 2004-’08, and was eventually placed on waivers by the Jays in August of ‘09.

Like Gibbons, Rios is appearing in his first postseason, and in the six years that have passed since he last donned a Blue Jays jersey, the now 34-year-old has yet to replicate the type of career year that saw him earn his second All Star nomination in 2007.

REMEMBER WHEN

On August 2nd, R.A. Dickey tossed seven innings of shutout ball as the Blue Jays cruised past the Royals to earn their third win in the four game series at Rogers Centre. Despite his impressive start against the defending American League Champions, Dickey ‘s performance was overshadowed by the theatrics caused when Royals starter, Edison Volquez , and reliever, Ryan Madson, took aim a pair of Toronto’s  key players.

In the first, Volquez drilled Josh Donaldson, resulting in a rare first inning warning from home plate umpire,Jim Wolf.  In the third, Volquez again threw a questionable pitch, this one buzzing the tower of Toronto’s MVP candidate. No call  was made.

Flash forward three innings, and with Volquez out of the game after six, Madson , appearing in relief, buried a 96 MPH fastball in the forearm of Toronto’s shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki.

No call.

The next batter --Donaldson-- nearly got taken out with another pitch, and again, no call was made. Regardless of the issued warning, Madson remained in the game, prompting Gibbons out of the Jays third base dugout in protest.

Defending his player, Toronto’s manager was tossed for his argument, and Donaldson struck out swinging as play resumed.  Enter Jose Bautista, who, seemingly always has an answer for heated situations on the field. This time was no exception as the Jays slugging right fielder proceeded to double in Ryan Goins to extend Toronto’s lead.

With Toronto clinging to a narrow 3-0 advantage in the top of the 8th, the Jays sent Aaron Sanchez to the hill in order to face the Royals 8-9-1 hitters. Having retired the first two batters he faced, Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar with a 2-0 fastball, resulting in his immediate ejection, along with a benches clearing incident on the field.

Ben Zobrist would later cut the Jays lead to a run, however Roberto Osuna was able to stop the bleeding and hold Kansas City to a pair, preserving Dickey’s 6th win of the season.

After the game, Volquez spoke to the media, calling Donaldson a “cry baby” for how he reacted to nearly getting hit for a second time in the game.  “He got mad at everybody like he’s Barry Bonds” said Volquez. “He’s not Barry Bonds, he’s got three years in the league. We’ve been around longer than he has”.

Donaldson broke in with the Oakland Athletics as a 24 year-old in 2010…. Five seasons ago.

Volquez wasn’t the only one to voice his displeasure with Toronto after their last meeting.

Royals starter, Yordano Ventura took exception to the way Bautista reacted following his seventh inning ground rule double.  Following the game, the 24 year old fire-baller voiced his intent on Twitter,

“We’ll meet again later, and if you do that with me, you’ll see what I’m about” Said Ventura in a tweet directed at Bautista following the game. “ I don’t care about anybody. I used to respect you, but you’re a nobody.”

Ventura has since apologized for his comments, and is slated to face the Jays in game two of the CS this Saturday.

Volquez gets the ball in Game 1.

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Andrew Hendriks

Born in southern Ontario during the late 1980's, Hendriks had a front row seat to watch the Blue Jays reach the pinnacle in '92/'93 as a child, an experience that only bolstered this Canadian's love for the "American Game." Having played since before his memory allows access too, his passion for Baseball grew over years of emulating his heroes on the local sandlots, memorizing the backs of chewing gum scented cards and travelling across North America to experience as many aspects of the game as possible. In 2009, Hendriks began volunteering at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as a Weekend Tour Guide. By 2010, he was hired on to help curate for the museum & Instruct the fundamentals of the game along side such legends as Tony Fernandez, Roberto Alomar and Jim Fanning during the Hall's annual Kids On Deck program. Following the 2011 season, Hendriks began blogging and co-hosting a weekly podcast for www.BackInBlue.ca, a Blue Jays themed website ran by fans, for fans. Looking to continue connecting with baseball fans across the country, Hendriks is excited to join such a strong team at the Canadian Baseball Network and looks forward to chipping in.