Toronto Blue Jays: (89-73) tied for second in the AL East
Cleveland Indians: (94-67) AL Central winner
Home-Field Advantage: Cleveland
How They Advanced: Toronto swept the Texas Rangers 3-0; Cleveland swept the Boston Red Sox 3-0
Head-to-Head in 2016: Cleveland won season series, 4 -3
Want a surprisingly even matchup? Well that's what you have with the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians. Cleveland won the seven-game regular-season series between the two, four games to three. Of the seven games, four were decided by one run, and the series included one blowout by the Blue Jays July 3, 17-1. Another highlight of the series was a 19-inning affair July 1, which Cleveland won, 2-1.
On paper, the biggest edge the Blue Jays have in the series isn't shown through a comparison of numbers. It's shown through the infirmary ranks of the Indians, who have two of their top three starting pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, not even on their championship roster. That is a huge edge for the Blue Jays, who have all four members of their rotation, in Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez -- in that order.
I have to admit, as good as Happ, Red Sox starter Rick Porcello and Indians starter Corey Kluber were in 2016, if I needed to pick an American League starter to win one game, it very well might be the Blue Jays' Sanchez. I know there's a desire to limit his innings, but this is Big Boy time. It's an absolute head-scratcher as to why Toronto skipper John Gibbons is content to have Sanchez not pitch until Game 4. If by some chance the Indians were to win two of the first three, or all three, the criticism of Gibbons will make what Orioles manager Buck Showalter went through, with his failure to use closer Zach Britton in a one-game playoff, look like a walk in the park.
The Big Difference-Makers
I'm not exactly sure why, but when the Indians won two of three in Cleveland Aug. 19-21, all three games were decided by a single run, and yet reliever Andrew Miller was not used in a single game. That doesn't mean the Blue Jays haven't faced him this year. However, we know they have not seen him during the last two months of the season. I doubt we'll get into Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen's territory, with a 50-pitch outing, but two times in this series, Miller may be asked to go longer than usual.
There's no question Kluber is the key arm in a series in which he could very well be asked to start three games; a lot is expected of him. However, Indians starter Trevor Bauer has a nice résumé against the Blue Jays' lineup this season. He pitched the last five innings of that 19-inning affair and allowed two hits and no runs to get the win. Bauer came back to throw another great game against Toronto Aug. 19, going eight innings while allowing two earned runs with just five hits allowed and 13 strikeouts. For the season, that is a 1.38 ERA through 13 innings pitched and a 0.92 WHIP.
Bauer starts Game 2, and it's imperative, with the caliber of starter the Indians will use in Games 3 and 4, that they get a big-time, keep-them-in-the-game performances from Bauer's starts.
Offenses Almost Offset One Another
There is no question if both offenses get on their best rolls, the Blue Jays have the chance to totally out-slug the Indians. But, assuming Kluber and Bauer can neutralize the Jays somewhat, then the Blue Jays, overall, can be chopped down to size. Like the Orioles, Toronto is, for the most part, a one-dimensional offense. The home run edge goes to Toronto with 221, 36 more than the Indians this season. However, the Blue Jays scored a total of 759 runs, and the Indians are plus-18 versus the Blue Jays in this department, with 777 runs. The Blue Jays, as a team, hit just .248 in 2016; the Indians hit .262, however, a closer look shows the two teams nose-to-nose in on-base percentage, with the Indians at .329 and Blue Jays at .330.
So where does Cleveland gets its extra "oomph" from? Take a look at team speed -- the Indians have a 134 steals and have been caught just 31 times in 2016. Meanwhile, the Jays have stolen just 54 bases and have been caught 24 times.
If The Jays Win
Sanchez will win both games he starts. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki will be, at least, the second-most productive bat in the Blue Jays' lineup, behind first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, and will have two-to-three big extra-base hits and drive in more than seven runs. Defensively, center fielder Kevin Pillar will have everyone comparing him to Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain, from their World Series run a year ago. The Blue Jays' relief trio of Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna will not give up any more than one lead during the series. Without reliever Joaquin Benoit, Grilli will step up.
If The Indians Win
Indians manager Terry Francona will out maneuver Toronto's John Gibbons at least twice in this series. Miller will play a key relief role. The Indians' OBP in the series will be above their .329 regular-season mark. They will put continual pressure on the Blue Jays' starters. The core of the Indians' lineup -- infielder Jose Ramirez, second baseman Jason Kipnis, shortstop Francisco Lindor, first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli and first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana -- have some comparing Cleveland to the Kansas City Royals of 2015. Outfielder Coco Crisp or catcher Yan Gomes wins a game with something they do.
Who Will Win
It's more than a hunch for me the Indians will get past the Blue Jays. They possess a special camaraderie, like the Royals of a year ago. If Carrasco, Salazar and outfielder Michael Brantley were present, this wouldn't be close. I love Francona and think the Indians win this in six heart-pumping -- and very close -- contests.