For the first time since September 28, the Cleveland Indians lost a game when they were defeated by the Toronto Blue Jays, 5-1, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday. In the span to follow, they won each of their final three games to close out the regular season (and missed a game due to rain in Detroit), then swept the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series before taking a commanding three-game lead in the ALCS over the Blue Jays.
Now, in order to claim the American League pennant and advance to the World Series, the Blue Jays will have to do something to the Cleveland club that has yet to happen to them in 2016 – the Indians must lose four consecutive games. With their backs against the wall, the Blue Jays got enough offense and a dominant pitching effort on Tuesday afternoon in the 5-1 victory over the Indians to extend the ALCS to a Game 5. Aaron Sanchez outlasted Corey Kluber, and the productive Indians bullpen was touched for three runs in the late innings to make a close game a little bit more lopsided at the end of the day.
The season is on the line for the Blue Jays. The Indians know that they need just one win over the next three games in four days to clinch their first pennant since 1997.
GAME TIMES and PITCHING PROBABLES
Friday, 10/14/16 – Toronto 0, Cleveland 2
Saturday, 10/15/16 – Toronto 1, Cleveland 2
Monday, 10/17/16 – Cleveland 4, Toronto 2
Tuesday, 10/18/16 – Cleveland 1, Toronto 5
Wednesday, 10/19/16* (4:00 PM ET at TOR) – LHP Ryan Merritt (1-0, 1.64 ERA) vs. RHP Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48)
Friday, 10/21/16* (8:00 PM ET at CLE) – TBD
Saturday, 10/22/16* (Time TBD at CLE) – TBD
TV (all games) – TBS; SNET; RDS; CNN en Español
Radio (all games) – Indians Radio Network; ESPN Radio; SN590 (Toronto)
MERRITT TO MAKE PLAYOFF DEBUT
Baseball is a funny game sometimes, one full of surprises. Wednesday’s starting nod for the Indians’ rookie left-hander Merritt has to be one of those moments, for him and for anyone else watching the ALCS unfold in Toronto this week.
The Indians rotation was already beset with injuries before a drone attacked Trevor Bauer. With his situation a bloody mess for the Tribe, they needed to rely on their ace Kluber on short rest on Tuesday afternoon to protect the rotation in the unfortunate event of a Game 7 in Cleveland on Saturday. Mike Clevinger was bumped out of his starting spot for Tuesday and ultimately worked in the final two innings for the Indians in Game 4, but he was not expected to be able to provide the starting length that Merritt could deliver.
The 24-year-old southpaw pitched in four games with the Indians this season, making a four and one-third inning debut against the Texas Rangers on May 30. He returned at the beginning of August for an outing and worked twice in September, including a five-inning start against the Kansas City Royals on September 30 when he allowed just one run on three hits while helping put the Indians in a position to hold the second-best record in the American League and, therefore, a home field advantage over the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series.
It will be the first time that he has faced the Blue Jays and just the second time pitching against a team from outside of the American League Central Division.
ESTRADA SEEKS TO EXTEND JAYS’ SEASON
Estrada pitched good enough to win in the series opener in Cleveland, but instead took a complete game loss in the Blue Jays’ 2-1 defeat against the Indians. The 33-year-old right-hander fired his first complete game effort of the season after just falling short of the feat in his first postseason appearance of the season against Texas in the ALDS.
His loss against Cleveland was just the second of his career in the playoffs and came despite allowing just two runs on six hits with a walk and six strikeouts on the night. This postseason, he has allowed just three runs on ten hits with a walk in 16 1/3 innings (1.65 ERA, 0.67 WHIP).
Estrada was an All-Star for the first time this season in his ninth big league season and his second in the American League with the Blue Jays. He was slowed at the start of the season and again just before the All-Star break with back issues, which limited him to just 29 starts on the season. He was 5-3 at the break with a 2.93 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in his first 16 starts, but he went 4-6 down the stretch in 13 games with a 4.27 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. His August ERA hovered close to five in five starts and he went just 1-3 in six starts to close out the final month-plus of the regular season while matching his season-high for walks in a month while doing so in ten and one-third fewer innings of work. The long ball also haunted him some in August.
He was just 3-7 at home with a 3.57 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 15 starts, putting up similar numbers overall, but with a slight uptick in hits, walks, and strikeouts. He was slightly better on the road, going 6-2 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 14 games.
TRIBE VS. ESTRADA
Despite his lengthy slump at the plate extending back over his last 20 at bats, birthday boy Rajai Davis has had success against Estrada, defying the conventional splits. He has faced the Toronto right-hander three times in his career and has a triple and a homer off of him with two runs batted in. Davis turns 36 on Wednesday, but is not in the starting lineup.
Four other Indians have gone yard against Estrada, including Coco Crisp, Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, and Yan Gomes. Crisp also has a double and two sacrifices against him in six career plate appearances, while Santana is 4-for-9 against him with the solo homer. Lindor’s home run was a two-run shot that proved to be the deciding runs in Cleveland’s 2-0 victory. He also has a single in seven career at bats against him.
Several others have had minimal success at best against Estrada. Tyler Naquin is 1-for-5 with two strikeouts. Mike Napoli is 1-for-7 with an RBI, but has drawn three walks to go with his three strikeouts. Jose Ramirez is 1-for-8 with a single and two Ks, and Jason Kipnis is 0-for-8 with a walk and a team-high four strikeouts. Roberto Perez is 0-for-3 against him in his career.
Regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s game, the Indians are heading back to Cleveland. Whether they are joined by the Blue Jays for Game 6 of the ALCS or are returning with the AL pennant in tow while preparing to host Game 1 of the World Series is dependent upon the outcome of Game 5, the final game of the series in Toronto.
Neither team had formally released its pitching probables for the tentative game at the time of this story, but right-hander Josh Tomlin would be expected to take the mound for Cleveland. He earned the win, his second in the playoffs this season, in Game 2 of the ALCS after being bumped up a game in the rotation with the injury to Bauer. He worked five and two-thirds innings, giving up a run on three hits with two walks and six strikeouts on just 85 pitches. He kept the Jays off balance with a barrage of breaking balls as he continued his solid run through the final month and a half of the season after his much-discussed disastrous August.
Left-hander J.A. Happ would be next in line in the Toronto rotation. He worked against Tomlin in Game 2 and allowed two runs on four hits in five innings. He threw 94 pitches, walking one and striking out four, while taking the loss, the first of his postseason career.
Game time for Game 6, if needed, from Progressive Field is scheduled for 8:00 PM ET on Friday.
Photo: Peter Aiken/USA TODAY Sports