They say all good things must come to an end, and such was the case on Tuesday afternoon as the Cleveland Indians saw their franchise-record six-game postseason winning streak conclude behind a strong pitching performance from the Toronto staff and the reemergence of their bats in a 5-1 win by the Blue Jays in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
The Indians had no answer for 24-year-old right-hander Aaron Sanchez, one of the Jays’ All-Stars this season in his third year in the Majors. Coming off of a 15-win regular season and a tidy 3.00 ERA, he kept the Jays in the ball game by keeping the Cleveland bats at bay and his offense provided its first burst of runs against the Indians in the series and did so against their ace, Corey Kluber.
Things were quiet for the first couple of frames. Toronto got a two-out single from Edwin Encarnacion in the first and a one-out single from Michael Saunders in the second, but both runners would be eliminated in force outs at second base. The Indians had a leadoff walk by Mike Napoli go to waste in the top half of the second against Sanchez.
The Indians posed the first real threat to the scoreboard in the top half of the third when Tyler Naquin doubled to center with one out. He moved to third on a sacrifice from Roberto Perez, but Carlos Santana grounded out sharply to second and Jason Kipnis grounded to the same man to leave Naquin standing 90 feet from home.
The failure to get the run in hurt all the more in the home half. Kluber struck out both Ryan Goins and Jose Bautista swinging and was 2-2 to Josh Donaldson before the reigning AL MVP tagged Kluber for a solo homer to left-center to put the Jays on top, 1-0.
Sanchez retired the side in order in the fourth before his offense got back to work with a little more support. Troy Tulowitzki walked on four straight to start the inning and was pushed to second on a walk by Russell Martin. Saunders struck out swinging before former Indian Ezequiel Carrera continued his strong play in the playoffs with a single to center to score Tulowitzki to give Toronto a 2-0 lead. Kluber struck out the next two batters to leave the deficit at two, but the damage was done.
Cleveland got on the board in the next half inning. With one out, Coco Crisp drew a four-pitch walk and moved to second on a wild pitch from Sanchez as Naquin went down swinging. Perez put a charge into a pitch and sent a double to deep left-center, scoring Crisp easily to make it a 2-1 game.
Kluber worked the fifth and exited early, as the team used caution with their ace while using him on three days rest for the first time in his Major League career. Dan Otero worked around a pair of singles in the sixth, stranding both men.
Sanchez would finish the sixth and leave for reliever Brett Cecil, who struck out a pair in the seventh before the Jays got back to building up their lead. With Bryan Shaw on in relief, Goins singled. Bautista hit a dribbler that Shaw fielded, but his throw sailed over the head of Napoli at first, allowing Goins to go to third and Bautista to reach safely. An intentional walk was issued to Donaldson, setting up force plays around the diamond, but it was a moot point as Encarnacion laced a single up the middle to score a pair. Donaldson was gunned down at third trying to advance for the first out, but Toronto had pushed its lead to 4-1. Mike Clevinger, who was originally scheduled to start Game 4, came on in relief and moved Encarnacion to third on a wild pitch before Tulowitzki grounded back to the mound. Martin grounded to third to end the inning, leaving it a 4-1 deficit for Cleveland.
The Jays’ strong backend of the bullpen, rendered largely useless through the first three games of the series, was able to do its job and it was done effectively. Jason Grilli worked a quiet eighth before Toronto added a run in the bottom of the inning after a one-out triple from Carrera and a sacrifice fly by Kevin Pillar to a diving Brandon Guyer in right field to make it 5-1. Young right-handed closer Roberto Osuna worked the ninth, striking out a pair to close out the game in a non-save situation.
Making his second start of the postseason, Sanchez was much better in his second go round. He worked six innings, allowing a run on two hits while striking out five Indians batters and walking a pair.
The outing came on the heels of a six-run effort in five and two-thirds innings in his start in the ALDS against the Texas Rangers.
KLUBER’S SCORELESS STREAK ENDS
Kluber had not allowed a run in each of his first two career postseason starts, but was not as lucky in Game 4. He was charged with two runs on four hits with two walks and seven strikeouts. He left in a one-run game at 89 pitches, looking sharp despite pitching on short rest.
“I felt fine. I don’t think it physically affected me. I made a mistake to Donaldson,” said Kluber. “We’re one win away from the World Series and that’s what we’re focused on.”
The Indians lineup received nothing of contribution from the top seven hitters in the lineup. They combined to go 0-for-23 with two walks on the afternoon.
Naquin and Perez, hitting eighth and ninth in the batting order, had the lone two hits of the game, both of which fell for doubles.
Trailing in the series 3-1, the Blue Jays will look to pull another game closer and keep the ALCS going on Wednesday afternoon as they send their Game 1 starter, Marco Estrada, back to the mound in the final game in Toronto in the seven-game set. He pitched well enough to win in the series opener, allowing two runs in a complete game effort, but took the loss as he went up against Kluber and the Indians bullpen in the defeat.
The Indians and their thinned starting rotation will look to rookie left-hander Ryan Merritt, who has made just one start and three relief appearances at the Major League level in his debut season. He closed out his year on a positive note, holding the Kansas City Royals to one run on three hits in five innings in a start on September 30, earning his first Major League win.
Game 5’s first pitch is scheduled for 4:00 PM ET from the Rogers Centre.
Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images