The force awakens! I kid, I kid. (Don't forget, out in theaters Dec. 18!) After scoring just three runs in two games in Kansas City, the Toronto Blue Jays returned home and exploded for 10 runs in an 11-8 victory over the Kansas City Royals in Game 3. Maybe it was the poutine or maybe the way the ball flies at Rogers Centre or maybe just that Johnny Cueto isn't exactly fixed just yet. Whatever the reasons, the bats came alive and Blue Jays fans had a fun time at the old ball yard.
1. Blue Jays score six runs in the third inning. Already leading 3-2 after scoring three runs in the second inning with two outs, the Jays ran Cueto out of the game with a hit parade in the third:
Edwin Encarnacion: Ground single to center (1-2 two-seam fastball)
Chris Colabello: Walk (four pitches)
Troy Tulowitzki: Home run to center (0-1 two-seamer)
Russell Martin: Walk (3-2 changeup)
Kevin Pillar: Double to right-center (1-1 slider)
That was it for Cueto, who was unable to get an out in the inning. He became just the second pitcher in postseason history to allow 11 baserunners in a start while pitching two innings or fewer (A.J. Burnett did it for the Pirates in the 2013 Division Series against the Cardinals). In came Kris Medlen. He got a strikeout and groundout, but then Josh Donaldson crushed a two-run home run to left. The final line on Cueto: 2 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 4 BB, 2 SO, 1 HR. Katie Sharp tweeted that he joined Tom Glavine as just the second pitcher to allow eight runs in a postseason start while pitching two innings or fewer.
Did Ned Yost wait too long to get him out of there? As Joe Sheehan wrote today, Yost won the first two games of the series even though he arguably left Edinson Volquez and then Yordano Ventura in too long, instead of going to his deep and strong bullpen:
Ned Yost allowed Edinson Volquez to wander through the sixth inning, his third time facing the devastating heart of the Blue Jays' lineup. Volquez walked the first two batters on 18 pitches, failing to get strike three on 12 tries, a warning sign that has come up again and again this October. Yost sent Dave Eiland to the mound, after which Volquez retired the next three batters, going 3-2 on the final two. The total? Thirty-seven pitches to get three outs, but no runs on the board. Having Volquez even start the sixth against the core of the Jays' lineup was a questionable decision. Allowing him to continue after throwing 18 pitches to the first two batters without recording an out was indefensible.
The next night, Ventura allowed two runs in the sixth inning, stretching a 1-0 deficit to 3-0, although the Royals rallied for the win. I mention this again because the sixth and seventh innings have become the key innings of postseason baseball. That line when you have a tiring starter, a third time through the order and you don't have complete faith in your middle relievers. The Royals have the bullpen depth to not force their starters through these innings.
This game was different, of course, since it was still early in the game. Plus, the inning blew up in a hurry with the Tulowitzki three-run home run. Knowing he has Chris Young going in Game 4 -- and knowing Young will have a short leash even if he is pitching well -- put Yost in a difficult decision of trying to soak more pitches out of Cueto or risk running through his bullpen. He left Cueto in after the Tulo home run, and it cost the Royals two more runs. Unlike leaving Volquez in, this one didn't work out, although Medlen fortunately saved the bullpen by pitching five innings.
As for Cueto: That one dominant game against the Astros now goes back to looking like an aberration when compared to his past two months of pitching. If we end up going to a Game 7, there will be a discussion of starting Medlen over Cueto, but Yost expressed confidence in Cueto after the game: "If he makes another start in this series, he'll be good."
2. Josh Donaldson. That home run? Impressive. Did we mention Donaldson hit 24 of his 41 home runs at home? That he hit .330 at home versus .263 on the road? That his slugging percentage was 200 points higher at home?
Josh Donaldson with a 113 MPH bomb... He only hit one ball ALL year that hard (It was also a home run)— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 20, 2015
Josh Donaldson with the 2nd-longest HR this postseason (Kyle Schwarber, 461 is longest) pic.twitter.com/PT4MR4EmiR— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 20, 2015
3. Marcus Stroman. OK, it's not that he was good. He allowed 11 hits and four runs in 6 1/3 innings, striking out just one batter. The Royals were squaring him up all game. He induced just three swings-and-misses out of 48 swings. There were all kinds of odd numbers about his stat line, but here's how rare it is to win a game in 2015 when you pitch at least six innings, allow 10 or more hits and record just one strikeout or zero: Only R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia won with that line. So he escaped.
But ... he managed to pitch into the seventh inning. The game's key out may have come in the top of the fifth, with two runners on and Salvador Perez up. The Royals had cut the score to 9-4, and an extra-base hit here would have turned up the thermometer on the Blue Jays. Perez, as he does, swung at the first pitch and grounded into a 6-4 fielder's choice.
Marcus Stroman has nothing tonight. Don't know why he's still in there. Tempting fate.— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) October 20, 2015
Stroman then got through the sixth and one out into the seventh before manager John Gibbons finally took him out with a 10-4 lead and a runner on. The interesting thing there: Gibbons brought in Aaron Sanchez, a pretty clear indication that the Toronto skipper doesn't really trust any relievers except Sanchez and Roberto Osuna. He ended up using Sanchez only to get out of the inning and with only 12 pitches, so it's not a significant concern about his usage in Games 4 or 5; but as with the David Price relief outing, I suspect Gibbons' rationale would be along the "Don't want to let the other team back in it" line. When Liam Hendriks started giving up baserunners with a seven-run lead in the ninth, Gibbons also had to use Osuna for nine pitches.
Again, this all leads up to Game 4 and how Gibbons will manage Dickey. And while the Royals lost, think of the positives in what could have just been a blowout defeat: Medlen saved the bullpen; they forced Sanchez and Osuna into the game, seeing more of their pitches; and they even hit a jack off Osuna, perhaps a small strike against his confidence.
4. Blue Jays fans. Man, they were loud and into the game and chanting and doing everything a baseball crowd should do. Good job, Blue Jays.
Jays fans chanting "WE WANT CUETO" which is against the rules because you cant bring a pitcher back in and the trade deadline already passed— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) October 20, 2015
Game 5. In the wild-card era since 1995, 28 teams have started a best-of-seven series with two victories; 26 of those went on to win the series (the 1996 Yankees came back to beat the Braves in the World Series, and the 2004 Red Sox beat the Yankees). Anyway, this series is far from over. This now looks like the pivotal game, as both teams go to their fourth starters. I think it's going to turn on when the managers go to their bullpens. The one who waits too long may pay the price.