You thought Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets bullpen knew how to handle the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League division series? You should have seen Edinson Volquez and the Kansas City Royals handling the Toronto Blue Jays in Game One of the American League Championship Series.
And if you thought often-enough criticised Mets manager Terry Collins figured out a few ways to work on the fly against a very deficient Don Mattingly, you had to watch often-enough criticised Royals manager Ned Yost defy a few expectations himself.
Volquez first. You remember him from when he first arrived. Pure power, pure machine-gunnery. Looked like he would rather throw the proverbial lamb chop past the wolf than out-think hitters. That’s not the guy who showed up in Kauffmann Stadium Friday night.
The guy who showed up Friday night was a craftsman come to build a mausoleum with the Blue Jays’ names on it. Volquez came loaded with a knuckle curve he could throw early and often for outside strikes and a changeup that must have felt like a knockout punch after the knuckle curve set up the still-formidable fastball.
He threw more fastballs as the game went on but he didn’t abandone those other two tools. And he left the Blue Jays wondering exactly what on earth had just hit them. It’s not that the Blue Jays didn’t know what would be coming when the Royals handed off to that bullpen, but Volquez Friday night had them wishing, practically, that the Royals would just get the game over with.
They should have overheard the conversation Volquez had with his catcher Salvador Perez before the game.
“We know they got a lot of pull hitters over there, and power hitters,” Volquez said after the game, “and he told me, ‘How you feel pitching down and away?’ And I said, ‘I feel sexy tonight’. And he was like, ‘All right, we’re changing the plan right now. We’re pitching those guys away’.”
“Tonight was the Volquez show,” Jays manager John Gibbons conceded. “He was tremendous. He shut down a good-hitting team, I know that. His ball was ducking and darting everywhere.” Shut them down? He practically had them wanting not to step into the batter’s box.
That was a problem Alcides Escobar didn’t have leading off for the Royals. Say what you will about guys with sub-.300 on-base percentages leading off, but as just about everyone on the planet has observed, the Royals were 32 games over .500 whenever Escobar was their leadoff man. Not to mention that they were 42-17 when Escobar swung at the first pitch.
Which is exactly what he did Friday night, firing a double to left field. The Royals didn’t cash that one in or do much of anything else against an effective enough Marco Estrada for the first two innings. But Escobar made up for that in the bottom of the third when he stood in with one out and Alex Gordon (leadoff double) aboard, driving another first pitch to the back of right field to break the scoreless tie. He had to wait all of about a moment before Lorenzo Cain singled him home.
One inning later Perez himself bought a little insurance. After Estrada struck out Kendrys Morales swinging and dropped a third strike in on a slightly surprised Mike Moustakas, Perez hit Estrada’s first pitch over the left center field fence.
Only three times all night did the Jays get a runner as far as second base. All three times that runner was left for dead. Far from the thunder machine they’d been to close out the division series, the Jays’ three hits were all singles.
The real heartbreaker for them had to have been the top of the sixth, when Volquez found himself being ground up for two inning-opening walks courtesy of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista with Edwin Encarnacion coming to the plate.
But Encarnacion is ailing thanks to a problem with his left middle finger, and Volquez froze him with strike three. Then Chris Colabello lined out sharply to left field. And up came Troy Tulowitzki, whose mid-season acquisition from his longtime Colorado Rockies was ballyhooed brightly enough, but who’d been somewhat less than the player he’d formerly been in the second half, thanks in large part by the lingering effects of a shoulder injury.
Tulowitzki had already been left in the lurch in the fourth, with Colabello aboard for the first Jays hit, when Volquez mounted him with two knuckle-curve strikes, a fastball to be fouled off, and a criminal changeup to get Tulowitzki swinging in abject embarrassment. Now, in maybe the single most important plate appearance of the game for the Jays, Tulowitzki had Volquez at 3-1.
And to everyone who could see it closely enough, Tulowitzki looked like he didn’t want to be there. Who could blame him? Volquez threw two called strikes, the second a fastball that sliced the outside corner in half and left Tulowitzki looking as though he needed a stiff drink and fast. Even as he barked a bit at plate ump Tony Randazzo over what some thought Randazzo’s overly generous outer strike zone.
Tulowitzki wouldn’t talk about the shoulder other than to say he was getting “constant treatment.” Gibbons would say only that “he’s good enough to play and he wants to play and he’s gutting it out this time of year. I tip my hat to him. He’s been struggling with that a bit. We can’t focus on him tonight because everybody got shut down, really.”
The Royals handed off to their bullpen after that. Kelvim Herrera zipped through the Jays in order in the seventh, Ryan Madson dodged a one-out single and a walk by way of a foul out and a force out, and Luke Hochevar eluded a one-out infield error in the ninth. Wade Davis wasn’t really needed because the Royals made sure it wouldn’t be anything like a save situation.
You can thank Eric Hosmer doubling home Cain and Morales sending Ben Zobrist home on a sacrifice fly to follow up in the Kansas City eighth for the 5-0 final. But you really should thank Volquez for forgetting about his postseason past, the 8.76 ERA in three prior postseason starting assignments. He made it possible for the Royals to win one without an insane comeback necessary.
“There’s only so many crazy comebacks you can pull off in a postseason,” said Hosmer after the game. “It was nice to get out to a lead tonight.” With David Price starting Game Two, the Blue Jays would like to get out to a tie tonight.