TORONTO — A task Blue Jays manager John Gibbons described as “daunting” Monday night after a loss in Game 3 on Tuesday became easier.
But not by any means easy.
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Still, Toronto’s 5-1 victory over Cleveland Tuesday afternoon in Game 4 of the American League Championship series accomplished the only thing it had to for his team.
“We’re still alive, no doubt” Gibbons said.
Alive because two of his stars responded when the Blue Jays, who still trail the best-of-seven series 3-1, needed it most.
Righthander Aaron Sanchez, an AL Cy Young Award candidate, pitched like it, allowing one run and two hits in six innings, departing with a 2-1 lead.
And Josh Donaldson homered in the third to give the Blue Jays their first lead of the series. Donaldson also saved a run, with a diving stop on Carlos Santana’s ground smash to end the fifth inning.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Sanchez said of Donaldson.
But in many ways it was about the 24-year-old Sanchez, who went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA this season. The righthander features one of the best fastball/sinker combinations in the game but came out Tuesday trying to establish, and succeeding, with his curveball.
“I think the book’s out, I’m aggressive with my heater,” Sanchez said. “I knew I needed to get them off that a little bit.”
Indians manager Terry Francona felt the pitch was the difference.
“Right from the very first inning, he commanded his breaking ball,” Francona said. “That made it really, really tough on us.”
Sanchez had a good feel for his breaking ball in the bullpen, though he had no idea how that would translate until he struck out the game’s first two hitters, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis.
“You never know, from ’pen to a game, with the adrenaline, with 50,000 screaming in your face,” Sanchez said, “you don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
Though the Indians, who lost for the first time this postseason, still hold the 3-1 lead, Tuesday very well may have started a momentum swing that could at least send things back to Cleveland for a sixth game.
Marco Estrada, mostly terrific over eight innings of a 2-0 loss in Game 1, will be opposed by Cleveland rookie lefthander Ryan Merritt, who has all of four career big-league appearances [one start], in Wednesday afternoon’s Game 5.
Jose Bautista doesn’t seem worried about facing Merritt, telling reporters,: “With our experience in our lineup, I’m pretty sure he’s going to be shaking in his boots more than we are.”
Part of Tuesday’s storyline was Cleveland’s belief its ace Corey Kluber would be fine starting on three days’ rest for the first time in his career. The righthander, who had not allowed a run in a combined 13 1/3 innings this postseason, pitched OK. He allowed two runs, four hits and two walks in five innings. Kluber, slated to pitch an if-necessary Game 7 on short rest, struck out seven.
Donaldson, who is 14-for-32 this postseason, gave Sanchez a lead in the third, slamming a hanging 2-and-2 curveball to left for a home run.
Ezequiel Carerra’s RBI single in the fourth made it 2-0. Cleveland got one back in the fifth on Roberto Perez’s RBI double, but the inning was more memorable for Donaldson’s defensive gem that ended it.
After Dan Otero pitched a scoreless sixth, Bryan Shaw allowed two runs (one earned) in the seventh that made it 4-1. Mike Clevinger allowed a run in the eighth — Carrera tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly — to make it 5-1.
“The fact of the matter is, I’m not ready to go home,” Donaldson said. “And I feel like our team is capable of winning this entire thing.”