The last two teams standing in the American League overcame plenty of obstacles to reach the AL Championship Series, but the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians are both playing as well now as they have all season.
“Two good teams. Two hot teams. It should be a good matchup,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons.
The two teams who will meet in Game 1 of the ALCS on Friday night at Progressive Field have not yet tasted defeat in the postseason. In the two division series, Cleveland swept Boston in three games and Toronto swept Texas in three games.
“It was a battle to get in, but we’ve been swinging it well in the last week,” said Gibbons, whose team had a losing record (11-16) in September, and needed a walk-off home run in the 11th inning to beat Baltimore in the wildcard game.
Cleveland’s 16-11 September record was the reverse of Toronto’s, but the Indians’ hardships came during the regular season. Their best hitter, Michael Brantley, missed virtually the entire season with a shoulder injury. Starting catcher Yan Gomes missed 2 1/2 months with a separated shoulder, and the Nos. 2 and 3 starters in their rotation, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, suffered season-ending injuries in September.
“They took a couple of big blows, a couple of big injuries, and they just kept on trucking,” Gibbons said.
“Losing two starters like that late is tough, but I think we have enough good players to win. We’ve just got to play good baseball,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.
The Indians, however, still have their No.1 starter, Corey Kluber, rested and ready to start Game 1. Kluber, a Cy Young Award candidate, was 18-9 with a 3.14 ERA in the regular season. He pitched seven scoreless innings on three hits in a 6-0 win over the Red Sox in Game 2 of the Division Series.
“We expect him to be good and stingy,” said Gibbons. “You never enjoy facing him, that’s for sure.”
Kluber has struggled in his career vs. Toronto. In one start against the Blue Jays this year he gave up five runs in 3 1/3 innings in what became a 17-1 loss. In five career starts against the Blue Jays Kluber is 1-3 with a 5.34 ERA.
Gibbons has no explanation for his team’s success against Kluber. “There’s a lot of things that happen in this game that you don’t know why,” he said.
Marco Estrada, Toronto’s Game 1 starter, was 9-9 with a 3.48 ERA in the regular season, but he came up big in Game 1 of the Division Series vs. Texas. Estrada allowed one run on four hits in 8 1/3 innings in a 10-1 Blue Jays victory. In one start against Cleveland this year Estrada got the win in a 9-6 Toronto victory, pitching five innings and allowing three runs on four hits.
Estrada said he’s hopeful the Blue Jays can use the momentum they gained during the sweep of Texas in the Division Series to good advantage in the ALCS.
“It’s all about timing. That’s usually the way it works,” he said. “The best team doesn’t always win, but I think the hottest team is usually the one that takes it all.”
Francona knows his pitching staff faces a big challenge in trying to control Toronto’s power-packed lineup.
“You don’t run down the hall to face their hitters,” Francona said.
“They have a solid lineup, one through nine,” said Kluber. “They are all good hitters, with a lot of power, but they’re also patient. So you’ve got to execute your pitches. There is no magic formula.”