From the way it was being billed, the American League Division Series showdown between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers sounded less like a baseball affair and more like a prizefight.

If that’s how it is, I’m compelled to say the Blue Jays have scored a first-round knockdown.

There was plenty of energy in Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, at the outset of Game 1 on Thursday afternoon—rightfully so in light of the still-fresh memory of Rougned Odor punching Jose Bautista, not to mention the roots of said punch in last year’s ALDS showdown. With that backdrop in place, how could anything other than a brutal back-and-forth ensue?

Well, how about a 10-1 drubbing in favor of the invading villains instead?

None other than Bautista provided the exclamation point with a three-run homer in the ninth inning, but the life had been sucked out of the stadium long before that. In fact, the win expectancy chart from FanGraphs makes no secret of where that happened:

That five-run third inning featured an RBI double by Josh Donaldson, an RBI single by Bautista and a groan-inducing, base-clearing triple by Troy Tulowitzki. It took Cole Hamels more than 40 pitches to get through it all, and boy did it feel like it had gone from a 50-50 game to one the Blue Jays had roughly a 90 percent chance of winning.

“We’re baseball players, not UFC fighters,” Bautista told Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet, “And we come here to play ballgames.”

All the Blue Jays needed to hang on was for Marco Estrada not to pull a Hamels and have a meltdown of his own. It wasn’t much of a challenge—granted—but he accepted it all the same.

Estrada did give up the Rangers’ lone run, but it came in the ninth inning after he had already hurled eight dominant frames. In all, he pitched 8.1 innings, struck out six with no walks and allowed only four hits.

As good as that line makes his performance sound, it was somehow even better than that. Case in point: One of the hits Estrada gave up was a soft trickler to first base off the bat of Adrian Beltre that had the characteristics of a batted ball that otherwise goes for a .000 batting average, according to Baseball Savant.

The Rangers needed more lucky hits like that, and Estrada just didn’t allow them. He was locating his fastball and keeping Texas hitters off balance with his ball-on-string changeup. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet would know when Estrada has a good changeup, so we should take his word for it that it was especially good in Game 1:

Estrada isn’t the most impressive name in a Blue Jays rotation that also features 20-game winner J.A. Happ, American League ERA champ Aaron Sanchez and fan favorite Marcus Stroman. But his Game 1 performance is a good reminder of how capable he’s been in his two years with the team. He led the AL in hits per nine innings for a second straight season in 2016, and his ERA only regressed to 3.48 from 3.13 in 2015.

Indeed, the fact that Estrada isn’t the most impressive name in Toronto’s starting rotation is a reminder of how strong the unit is. Blue Jays starters led the American League with a 3.64 ERA, and John Gibbons will tell you they’re ready to keep that up in October.

“If you keep them in line, we feel good about them all,” the Blue Jays manager said before the series began, per Brittany Ghiroli of “That’s a big part of our strength is our starting rotation. And we’ve managed the last couple of months to keep them all rested.”

As for Toronto’s offense, what was lost amid the excitement (and confusion over Zach Britton’s absence) of Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run against the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Wild Card Game was that Blue Jays hitters struggled for most of the evening. Right up until Encarnacion took his parrot for a stroll, they still seemed mired in the slump that dragged the team to a 13-16 showing in September and October.

But Thursday? Thursday was more like it.

The presence of Donaldson, Bautista and Encarnacion gives Toronto’s offense the image of a parade of home run hitters. But while they do hit their share of dingers, what Blue Jays hitters really excelled at in 2016 was being tough outs. They saw the most pitches per plate appearance of any team in 2016, a notable departure from their more aggressive style in 2015.

Especially in that big third inning, the Blue Jays looked more like themselves in Game 1. They gave Hamels no quarter, forcing him to throw perfect pitches that he just didn’t have. Facing an offense that can do that is just as demoralizing as facing one that’s a threat for a dinger at any moment.

Of course, it must be said that Hamels is easier prey these days than his reputation suggests. He pitched well for most of 2016 but fell on hard times with a 4.28 ERA in his last 11 starts. Hard contact (37.2 Hard%) became a big problem, an indication that something is up with the Rangers ace.

Still, this is no time to balk about how the Blue Jays walked into Arlington and stole Game 1.

No, sir. They made the Rangers, they of the American League’s best regular-season record, look overmatched. The Blue Jays did it with the same ingredients that made them a good team in their own right for most of 2016. And with Happ set to take the mound opposite Yu Darvish, who had issues of his own at the end of the year, they could well do it again in Game 2 on Friday.

The Blue Jays still need two more wins before we can call the fight in their favor. But with their opponent reeling and them not even sweating, they have to like their chances.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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