TORONTO -- When the Blue Jays reported for Spring Training and star slugger after star slugger walked into the clubhouse, nobody could have predicted that a lack of offense would eventually lead to their downfall.
The question entering this season was whether the Blue Jays would have enough pitching to contend. Well, not only did they have enough depth in that department, they pieced together what turned out to be the American League's best starting rotation. The problem was that in the AL Championship Series against the Indians, the offense did not live up to its end of the bargain. A 3-0 defeat in Game 5 on Wednesday ended the Jays' season.
A lineup filled with the likes of Josh Donaldson, José Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin had trouble scoring runs? It sounds almost impossible, yet that's what happened surprisingly often during the regular season and then during the ALCS.
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"Obviously I'm disappointed in the result, but I'm not disappointed in anybody in this clubhouse," Donaldson said. "I know the sacrifices that each and everybody makes in here, and we left it out on the line. They played better than us."
In Toronto's four ALCS losses to Cleveland, the team was shut out twice and scored just three runs. The lone exception for the offense was a five-run outburst in Game 4 that helped the Blue Jays avoid a sweep and gave them some fleeting hope that the series could be salvaged. In the end, it didn't happen.
The Blue Jays' lineup this season was a strange case of Jekyll and Hyde. When Toronto's hitters were good, they were really good. And when they were bad, they were really bad. How else can one explain the Jays scoring 22 runs over three games vs. the likes of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish in the AL Division Series against the Rangers, then following that up with eight runs over five games vs. Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, the injured Trevor Bauer and rookie Ryan Merritt. Cleveland's bullpen was excellent, but it seems Toronto should have done more against the Tribe's starters.
The all-or-nothing approach worked last season when the Blue Jays ran away with the AL East thanks in large part to the league's best offense. It worked at times this year, too, with an 80-39 record when hitting at least one home run -- but that also led to a 9-34 mark when the power went missing in action.
"If you asked [the Indians] how they see the games going, they would have said get out to an early lead, they'd be able to shut us down for a little bit and then shut the door with the back of their bullpen," Toronto center fielder Kevin Pillar said. "It kind of worked out that way. The game when we scratched a run early and built on that lead, it was a different story. We just weren't able to do it."
Cleveland entered this series with a clear plan of attack. Its pitchers went heavy on breaking balls, taking note that Toronto hit just .224 with a .376 slugging percentage vs. offspeed pitches (curveballs, sliders and changeups) this year. Kluber used that to his advantage in Game 1 by tossing a career-high 42 curveballs, and Tomlin followed suit in Game 2 with a career-high 36.
The Indians attacked with the fastball in and then went offspeed away. The strategy worked as the Blue Jays combined to hit .201 with seven extra-base hits. In the ALDS, Toronto outhomered Texas, 8-2. But in the ALCS, the tables turned, with the Blue Jays being outhomered by the Tribe, 6-2.
That led to a lot of ugly numbers across the board in the ALCS. Pillar had one hit in 16 at-bats. Tulowitzki and Martin each had two. Bautista went 3-for-18, and Encarnacion went 4-for-19. The only home runs of the series were off the bats of Donaldson and Michael Saunders, and both came with nobody on base.
"I know that I'm capable of doing a lot more," Bautista said. "They pitched great. It was tough, they seemed to make the right pitches at the right time and got us out, and they never let us string base hits together. When we had men in scoring position, they seemed to turn it up a notch and go to another level of execution. My hat's off to them."