Marco Estrada is starting Game 1 of the ALCS for the Blue Jays on Friday night, but the team says they would have been confident kicking off the series against Cleveland with any of their four starters on the mound.
Sure, everyone says that, but at least when the Blue Jays say it, the evidence backs it up. Estrada and Aaron Sanchez were All-Stars this season. J.A. Happ won 20 games and his 3.18 ERA is reflective of a great year. Marcus Stroman went through his ups-and-down, but is on a nice roll of late and pitched well in the 2015 postseason, too.
"All I know is you look back at the last couple of years, how good Marco’s been in big games for us, playoff games, and really two straight years of regular-season games," manager John Gibbons said at a press conference Tuesday. "I think he was the logical choice. We could have gone with anybody and felt good, but he’s been so good in that role, and we’ll just shape it after him."
The Indians would have felt the same way if their rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer was at full-strength. It's not. Kluber and Bauer are healthy, but Carrasco is out with a broken hand. Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger are next up on the depth chart. Salazar, who's been sidelined for over a month with a forearm issue, is currently rehabbing with the goal of returning in the ALCS and pitching in relief.
That would further strengthen the one area where the Indians have a definite edge over the Blue Jays. Cleveland's bullpen is deep and dynamic, and manager Terry Francona showed in the division series against Boston that he'll deploy his relievers unconventionally. Francona went to Andrew Miller in high-leverage situations in the middle innings of Games 1 and 3, while Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Dan Otero are also lockdown late-inning options.
Toronto's relievers did tremendous work in the ALDS sweep of Texas, allowing two runs over nine innings, but they don't inspire the same kind of collective faith in tight and close spots that Cleveland's group does. Francisco Liriano is expected to be activated from the seven-day concussion disabled list Saturday, which would give the Blue Jays another left-handed reliever to lean on.
The distinct differences between the two team's pitching realities shines an even brighter light on Gibbons and Francona. How many relievers does Gibbons trust? How much more creative can Francona get with his bullpen? And how long will he go with his starters? In a seven-game series, those decision carry over and can often decide games.
So let the games, and the subsequential mind games, begin.
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