Justice: Estrada latest surprise October hero
TORONTO -- The applause, thunderous and emotional, began the instant Blue Jays manager John Gibbons stepped from his dugout and headed toward the mound. He walked slowly, giving the thing time to build and to wash over his pitcher and his team. It was warm and sweet and utterly unforgettable.
The fans were standing and cheering, seemingly all 49,325 of them by the time Gibbons reached the mound. And then it began, Marco Estrada's victorious walk back to the dugout in one of those moments he'll surely remember for the rest of his life.
Estrada's teammates greeted him with fist bumps and bear hugs, and Estrada plopped down, a happy man. With the Blue Jays facing elimination and with a bullpen worn thin, Estrada turned in a heroic performance, smothering the Royals for 7 2/3 innings as Toronto won, 7-1, on Wednesday to force the best-of-seven American League Championship Series back to Kansas City.
Game 6 is Friday at Kauffman Stadium (7 p.m. ET air time on FOX Sports 1/Sportsnet, 8 p.m. game time), with the Blue Jays' David Price set to oppose the Royals' Yordano Ventura..
Did Estrada save a season for his team? OK, let's not go that far. The Royals still lead the series, three games to two, and will have their home crowd behind them Friday and, possibly, in Game 7 on Saturday. One step at a time.
"Unfortunately, we put ourselves in this situation," Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista.
The Royals had gotten 15 hits in both Games 3 and 4 to take a 3-1 series lead. When the Blue Jays showed up at Rogers Centre on Wednesday, they dropped their luggage outside the clubhouse, hoping there would be a reason to travel after the game.
Estrada made sure there was, allowing three hits and a run. The Blue Jays had three relievers -- Aaron Loup, Liam Hendriks and Mark Lowe -- unavailable, and Gibbons was prepared to use two of his starters, Price and R.A. Dickey, in relief if Estrada got into early trouble.
Price even warmed up at one point, but Estrada didn't need the help. His teammates scored a run in the bottom of the second inning, and Estrada made it stand up until Toronto broke it open with four runs in the sixth.
Estrada did it by throwing strikes -- 72 of 108 pitches -- and by mixing his curveball and fastball with one of baseball's best changeups. Price called that pitch "Bugs Bunnyesque."
Translation: The pitch is so slow and throws hitters off so consistently that they have time to swing and miss multiple times by the time it reaches the catcher.
In eight big league seasons, Estrada, 32, is 36-34 with a 3.95 ERA. But he has learned the craftsmanship of pitching, especially in developing, polishing and trusting that changeup. He's coming off his best season -- 181 innings and a 3.13 ERA -- and is approaching free agency at the right time.
Baseball's postseason has had unlikely heroes through the years. These are the guys who rise to the moment when their team needs them most. Sometimes, the stars of the postseason are household names -- Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, etc.
Sometimes, they are guys named Jeff Suppan. He was 140-146 during a 17-season career for seven franchises. In Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, Suppan allowed one earned run in seven innings as the Cardinals eliminated the Mets with a 3-1 win.
Suppan pitched two magnificent games in that NLCS, allowing one earned run in 15 innings and earning this series MVP award. He did this after winning 12 games during the regular season.
Jeff Weaver had a game like that, too. He was 104-119 for his career, but in Game 5 of the 2006 World Series, he allowed the Tigers one earned run in eight innings to clinch a championship for the Cardinals.
There have been others -- Colby Lewis (2010 Rangers) and Derek Lowe ('04 Red Sox), Ryan Vogelsong ('12 Giants) and Jaret Wright (1997 Indians).
For that matter, the best postseason performance in history came from one of the least-likely heroes. Yankees right-hander Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers -- the only one thrown in a World Series. But in 14 seasons, he won just 81 times (though he was 11-5 with a 3.26 ERA in '56).
The Blue Jays say what Estrada -- who beat Texas in a must-win Game 3 in the AL Division Series and started Game 1 of the ALCS -- did wasn't a surprise. Afterward, someone marveled that Estrada had shaken off his catcher just once the entire day.
"He didn't shake me off one time," said that catcher, Dioner Navarro.
"Last time he shook me off, he gave up a double," Navarro said. "He learned his lesson."
Bautista added, "He doesn't really get rattled over any situation or what might be happening in the game. It doesn't seem to faze him who he's facing. I've seen him go into pretty hostile environments and deliver."
Estrada delivered in a very friendly environment on Wednesday. He gave the Blue Jays just what they needed. He gave them a chance to keep going.
"We're really excited," Navarro said. "We're relaxed. We know what is ahead of us, but we can deal with it."