ALDS 2016: Keys for All 4 AL Teams to Win Game 2
Thursday's Game 1s in the American League, which featured some of the most potent offenses in all of MLB, didn't lack the firepower we've come to expect from the the teams that have been doing it all year. The Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians grabbed 1-0 series leads over the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox, respectively, with frightening combinations of quality pitching and overwhelming power at the plate.
The series between Toronto and Texas is a rematch of the 2015 American League Division Series. A year ago, the Blue Jays dropped the first two games in the best-of-five series at home before heading to Texas. Toronto won both games on the road to force a decisive Game 5, which it would win at home.
The 2016 division series began differently for Toronto, which secured its date with the Rangers by sinking the Baltimore Orioles at home on Tuesday following a walk-off, three-run home run in the 11th inning from Edwin Encarnacion.
Despite embarrassing the Rangers at their home park on Thursday by a score of 10-1, the Blue Jays know all too well that there is an arduous road ahead that leads to the American League Championship Series and continues at 1 p.m. ET on Friday.
Neither the Red Sox nor the Indians were participants in the 2015 postseason—Cleveland won 81 games a year ago, while Boston claimed just 78 victories. Each team's story was substantially different in 2016, with both teams winning more than 90 games.
Cleveland edged out Boston by one game over the course of 162, and the Tribe took Thursday's Game 1 at home 5-4. The two teams combined to jolt six solo home runs, but it was Jason Kipnis' RBI single in the fifth inning that made the difference.
After one game, it wouldn't be surprising to see this series go the full five games. However, Cleveland and Boston cannot look past Game 2 on Friday at 4:30 p.m ET.
Keys for the Blue Jays: Middle-of-the-Order Production and Length from J.A. Happ
Toronto's heart of the order is terrifying to look at on the lineup card, so one can only imagine what opposing pitchers feel as they stare down at them from the mound, one after another. In the Blue Jays' 10-1 thrashing of Texas on Thursday, reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki went 11-for-22 with nine RBI. That could understandably induce nightmares for Yu Darvish, who will start Game 2 for Texas.
The Blue Jays won't score 10 runs every game in this series (although they might), but their average run total will stray closer to 10 than zero, even against Darvish, who pitched to a 3.41 ERA in 17 starts this season.
Bautista was the only member of the aforementioned squad to go deep in Game 1, but that group was the main reason that Toronto hit the fourth-most home runs in all of baseball this year. Additionally, when these guys hammer extra-base hits, it's not unusual for there to be men on base. Three of the five—Donaldson, Encarnacion and Bautista—boasted on-base percentages over .350 in 2016, so Toronto can blow games open in a hurry.
J.A. Happ won 20 games this season for the first time in his career while posting an impressive 3.18 ERA. While I'm not saying he can't be perfect, or close to it, he probably doesn't need to be with the incendiary Jays offense widening his margin of error.
However, Happ can significantly boost his team's chances of winning by pitching at least six innings. In the postseason, the importance of momentum is amplified, especially when playing on the road in front of opposing raucous fans. Pitching in Texas, Happ needs to give his lineup a chance to put runs on the board.
If he's able to suppress the Rangers' big hitters enough to prevent the crowd from becoming a major factor for six innings, Happ will put Toronto in an excellent position to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Keys for the Rangers: Keeping the Ball in the Yard and Veteran Leadership
Texas fell apart early on Thursday in Game 1 against Toronto. In the third inning, the Blue Jays jumped out to a 5-0 lead on RBI hits from Donaldson, Bautista and Tulowitzki. Just like that, the energy was sucked out of Globe Life Park in Arlington. For the game, the Rangers mustered just four hits, which is not going to get it done in any postseason game, much less one against Toronto's monster lineup.
Darvish will be tasked with keeping Toronto's big boppers in check, which is no easy task. In scoring 10 runs in Game 1, the Blue Jays used only two homers—one from Bautista and the other from Melvin Upton Jr. Still, the Jays rely heavily on the long ball for offense, and taking that weapon away from them will go a long way toward getting a win on Friday.
While a pitcher should never aspire to give up any home runs, Darvish cannot afford to give up more than one dinger and reasonably expect his team to be victorious. According to The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh, citing Baseball Prospectus, no team won fewer games when not hitting a home run than Toronto, which went just 9-34 in such games.
Darvish struggled with keeping batters in the ballpark this season, giving up 12 long balls in his 17 starts. If he hopes to help the Rangers even the series, Darvish will have to be better.
As for Texas' offense, a repeat of Thursday's power outage will almost guarantee that the Rangers fall into a 2-0 hole, and that's why they need two guys with a bounty of playoff experience to lead the charge. Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran are Texas' elder statesmen at 37 and 39 years old, respectively, but each had a huge offensive campaign in 2016 as well.
Beltre and Beltran combined to smash 61 homers and 197 RBI this year, with Beltran's season split between the New York Yankees and Rangers. Look for them to propel a lineup that features more young guys than some might realize.
Keys for the Indians: Score First and Get Through Red Sox Lineup Once
Although the Indians finished with a better regular-season record than the Red Sox by one game and claimed home-field advantage for the ALDS, some considered Boston the favorite in this series because of its stellar offense and recent postseason success.
To give themselves the best chance to go up 2-0 on Boston, the Indians need to score first in Game 2. The crowd at Progressive Field was rocking on Thursday night, and the Tribe need to help their fans carry that same momentum into Friday's pivotal game.
In addition to firing up its fans, Cleveland taking an early lead will help stifle the Red Sox bats. It will be up to Corey Kluber to stop Boston from taking control of the game with an early lead. The Red Sox struck first in Game 1 on an RBI double in the first inning from Hanley Ramirez, and although Cleveland quickly evened the score in the home half of the second, giving up the game's first run is not a habit the Indians want to form.
Both of these keys for Cleveland come back to its bullpen, the strength of which was on full display Thursday night. Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer pitched only 4.2 innings, giving up three runs on six hits and forcing Cleveland's resilient bullpen to get the final 13 outs.
If the Indians can take an early- or mid-game lead with strong performances from Kluber and the offense, manager Terry Francona can once again turn the game over to his bullpen with a lead.
Around the trade deadline, the Indians acquired reliever Andrew Miller from the Yankees. Miller had been pitching the eighth inning in New York ahead of closer Aroldis Chapman, but his role transformed once he arrived in Cleveland.
In Game 1, Miller took over for Bauer in the fifth, eventually striking out David Ortiz for the final out of the inning. He ended up getting five more outs and recording three more strikeouts before Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen shut the door.
Francona has not been shy about using Miller, perhaps his best pitcher, at any time during a game, and it worked on Thursday. This relatively new thinking for a manager could prevent the Red Sox from getting hot late in games, as it did in Game 1.
Keys for the Red Sox: David Price and Getting Back to Regular-Season Form
Boston fans must be incensed over their team's 5-4 loss in Game 1 against the Indians on Thursday night, but it gets worse. The Red Sox's Game 2 starter, David Price, is a horrendous postseason pitcher. There's no way around it.
Price, in postseason appearances with the Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers and Blue Jays, has pitched to a putrid 5.12 ERA in 14 games. For a guy who has long been considered a No. 1 pitcher, that is an egregious statistic.
Price's 2016 regular-season numbers are mostly impressive—he went 17-9 with a 3.99 ERA and 228 strikeouts—but pitching between April and September has never been Price's problem. It's when the calendar turns to October that Price struggles. On Friday, the Red Sox need a quality start (six or more innings and three or fewer runs) from Price or something close to it.
The Indians offense did its damage in Game 1 primarily via three solo home runs over the course of four batters in the third inning. Meanwhile, the normally explosive Red Sox pushed only four runs across all night.
While the Red Sox can win games scoring four runs, we just discussed how Price has the propensity to get shelled in October, and that should be in the back of Red Sox hitters' minds as they step up to face 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber on Friday.
With that in mind, we turn to the second key for Boston in Game 2. The Red Sox offense needs to find the igniter that it used for most of 2016. Boston led MLB in average, hits, runs, RBI and OPS. That was no fluke; this is a team that is built to bury opponents in insurmountable heaps of runs.
Two of the team's four runs on Thursday came on solo home runs from 22-year-old Andrew Benintendi and Brock Holt—not exactly where most predicted Boston's offense to come from. Boston had no trouble scoring all year, but if the team's offense sputters, it would leave the door open for Cleveland to take advantage of the Red Sox's iffy pitching.
If Price can't change his losing postseason ways, the Red Sox could need six runs or more to even the series at one.