Both the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays swept what many might have called superior opponents in their respective American League Division Series. Cleveland shocked the baseball world by keeping Boston, the best offense in the game, in complete check, while Toronto slugged its way past an elite starting rotation and defense in top seed Texas.
After running away with the AL Central title this year, Cleveland is looking for its first AL pennant since 1997 and World Series championship since ‘48 — one of the longest droughts in American pro sports. While Toronto’s recent success has been fun to watch over the last season and a half, Blue Jays fans haven’t forgotten the two decades of petulance since their back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and ’93.
One way or the other, at least one title-starved fan base will be ecstatic to watch their team raise the Commissioner’s Trophy by series end.
Toronto Blue Jays vs. Cleveland Indians
Fri., Oct. 14
Marco Estrada vs. Corey Kluber
Sat., Oct. 15
J.A. Happ vs. Josh Tomlin
Mon., Oct. 17
Trevor Bauer vs. Marcus Stroman
Tues., Oct. 18
Mike Clevinger vs. Aaron Sanchez
Wed., Oct. 19
TBD vs. TBD
Fri., Oct. 21
TBD vs. TBD
Sat., Oct. 22
TBD vs. TBD
Three Things to Watch
1. Jays’ Bats Waking Up
Toronto’s high-flying, record-breaking offense that blasted through the American League a season ago, might be waking up at just the right time this October. Last year, the Jays scored 127 more runs than any other team in the AL and led all of baseball in home runs, doubles, RBIs, and OPS. This season was less forgiving as the Jays dealt with injuries to key players (Jose Bautista), natural regression, and an improved AL East.
The Jays’ offense was clicking on all cylinders against the Rangers’ top-notch pitching staff, scoring 22 runs in their three-game sweep, 16 of which off of Texas’ starting rotation that features Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. Cleveland’s rotation will be without Carlos Carrasco (broken hand) and Danny Salazar (strained forearm) for the entirety of the ALCS, leaving an already vulnerable Indians rotation susceptible to Toronto’s big bats.
2. Can Cleveland Pitching Keep Up?
If we didn’t see it on our TV screens or in person, it might have been too hard to believe — but the box score doesn't lie. Yes, the Cleveland pitching staff really did hold the Boston Red Sox, the best offense in baseball, to just seven runs and a .136 batting average with runners in scoring position in a three-game sweep, something that no other pitching staff was able to do this entire season.
The amazing part about the Indians’ pitching performance was that the Tribe were without two of their three best starters, the aforementioned Carrasco and Salazar, but still got two solid starts from Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin. Mixed in with a typical dominating performance from ace Corey Kluber, and brilliant bullpen management from manager Terry Francona, and great relief appearances from every Cleveland reliever, it was the perfect pitching mix for a shortened five-game series.
But what happens in a best-of-seven series, when starting pitching performances are so essential, and bullpens can easily get overused — especially against a red-hot Toronto offense? Do the Indians have enough arms to keep up with the Blue Jays’ bats?
3. Who is the Hero?
In postseason baseball, in every series, there is a player — often times the most unassuming of players — who steps up for his respective team and takes them to the next level. This series between the Blue Jays and Indians has no shortage of A-list players that can take over or change the course of a series.
For Toronto, the obvious choices are in its lineup. With the likes of reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, and sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, one swing of the bat can change the series in the Blue Jays’ favor. But I’ve got my eyes on center fielder Kevin Pillar and not necessarily at the plate. Pillar is the best center fielder in baseball, ranking second in defensive runs saved (21) and ultimate zone rating (21.4), the two defensive metrics measuring the efficiency of a defender’s ability in the field.
For Cleveland, it’s all about the bullpen — and not just the usual suspects of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, two of the best relievers in the AL. Allen and Miller are a given, especially with a worn-down Indians rotation. But it is the other bullpen arms that could make or break this series for the Tribe. The performances of relievers Bryan Shaw (vs. BOS: 2 1/3 IP, 2 hits, 2 runs, 1 HR) and Dan Otero (vs. BOS: 1 IP, 0 runs, 0 hits) are going to be vital if Cleveland hopes to advance to the Fall Classic.
The Blue Jays’ red-hot offense isn’t going to be the only issue for the Indians in this series. The Jays have the best starting rotation in the American League this season in terms of ERA (3.78) and it’s a group with plenty of postseason experience. The likes of J.A Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman could prove to be too much for Cleveland’s offense and be the catalyst for Toronto’s first World Series appearance since 1993.
Prediction: Blue Jays in 6
— Written by Jake Rose, an avid baseball fan who also is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.