ARLINGTON -- This was playoff baseball at its teeth-grinding best. One team jumps to a lead, and then the other claws back into it, refusing to give in or go away.This is the kind of game the Toronto Blue Jays had to learn how to win. By the way, that's
ARLINGTON -- This was playoff baseball at its teeth-grinding best. One team jumps to a lead, and then the other claws back into it, refusing to give in or go away.
This is the kind of game the Toronto Blue Jays had to learn how to win. By the way, that's true of every championship-caliber team, and the Blue Jays are definitely that.
They did win this one, defeating the Texas Rangers, 5-3, on Friday afternoon at Globe Life Park to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five American League Division Series. This game reminded the Blue Jays why last season was both disappointing and educational.
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"I don't think you can get what the playoffs are like unless you've been there," center fielder Kevin Pillar said.
That's how these Blue Jays are different. They were remade breathtakingly fast over the past 24 months, and the club took off almost immediately in the second half of the 2015 season, going 42-14 during one stretch.
But grinding through the playoffs last season -- that is, coming back from an 0-2 deficit to eliminate the Rangers in the ALDS and then losing a six-game AL Championship Series to the Royals -- might end up being especially useful.
That experience set the stage for a team that was playing must-win games down the stretch this season and has opened these playoffs by winning a tight, tense AL Wild Card Game against the Orioles on Tuesday night and taking two on the road from the Rangers.
Of Toronto's 25 active players, 16 were acquired after the end of the 2014 season. The Blue Jays made big trades for third baseman Josh Donaldson, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and others. They also signed impact free agents like catcher Russell Martin and starting pitchers Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ.
And their farm system produced a string of gifted young players, including Pillar and pitchers Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna and Marcus Stroman.
Along with the franchise's cornerstone player, José Bautista, and first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, the Blue Jays believe they're plenty good enough to win a World Series.
Their track record backs it up: Since the 2015 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Blue Jays are 129-91 in the regular season, the third-best record in the Majors, behind only the Cubs and Rangers.
"It's kind of funny, it really just came together like that," manager John Gibbons said. "We made some big trades, some impact trades. Not just adding players, some key guys. It wasn't like a gradual improvement. Just happened really overnight, and we ran with it. It was like a light switch went on."
Since dropping two home playoff games to the Rangers to open last year's ALDS, the Blue Jays are 8-4 in postseason play. Gibbons points to the acquisitions of Martin -- "He's our backbone" -- and Donaldson, the 2015 AL Most Valuable Player Award winner and a guy whose competitive fires burn hot every day of the season.
And there's Tulowitzki, who arrived at the 2015 Trade Deadline and has five hits combined in Games 1 and 2 of this ALDS.
With Donaldson and Tulowitzki on the left side of Toronto's infield and with Pillar in center, the Blue Jays were one of baseball's best defensive teams.
"He made a huge, huge difference," Gibbons said of Tulowitzki. "He started taking hits away and really changed the dynamic of our team just by doing that. He was a leader on the field. We don't get there last year without him."
To have so many veteran players come together and play so well almost immediately is a tribute both to them and to Gibbons for creating the right environment.
"I've been here for four years, and winning wasn't something that was synonymous with the Blue Jays," Pillar said. "We were kind of the doormat of the AL East. They went out and got some really, really good players and ultra-competitive guys, and that kind of just changed the culture. It was just a major turnaround."
In the first two games of this ALDS, the Blue Jays have gotten a little bit of everything. Starting pitchers Estrada and Happ allowed two earned runs in 13 1/3 innings.
The Blue Jays collected 13 hits in Game 1, and while they got only six in Game 2, four of them were home runs (by Tulowitzki, Pillar, Encarnacion and Ezequiel Carrera).
Gibbons got five innings from Happ on Friday and turned a 5-1 lead over to his bullpen. He needed five relievers to finish up, including Osuna for the final five outs.
There was a scary moment in the eighth inning when Rangers center fielder Carlos Gómez lined a hit off reliever Francisco Liriano's head. Liriano walked off the field under his own power, but he was transported to a hospital for further evaluation after the game and will travel back to Toronto with the team.
The Blue Jays can eliminate the Rangers as early as Sunday in Game 3, but if rallying from an 0-2 deficit against Texas last season taught them anything, it's that the postseason is one day at a time.
"We're definitely battle-tested," Tulowitzki said "Losing to Kansas City [in the 2015 ALCS] was tough. But you look at Kansas City the year before. They lost in the playoffs, and then [the next year] they won the World Series."
The Blue Jays are certainly more prepared for a playoff run than they were last year when it was all new to them.
"You kind of get tested, and you really get used to it," Gibbons said. "That's kind of the way it's been the last few weeks. But it's definitely gotta help."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.