CLEVELAND — Feel free to talk about the Blue Jays’ offense.
Most people do.
That’s understandable, given that relentless lineup. Toronto — led by sluggers Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki — blew past the Yankees to capture the AL East crown in 2015, reached the American League Championship Series, again put up standout numbers this season in capturing a wild-card spot and added a thunderous performance in a three-game sweep of the favored Rangers in their Division Series.
But as the Blue Jays prepared to open the ALCS on Friday night against the Indians at Progressive Field, best remember to mention the pitching staff, especially the starting rotation.
If you don’t, Toronto’s hitters certainly will.
“I don’t know if the credit, the importance of the job they’ve done, has been put out the way that it needs to,” Bautista said.
Indeed, a group that was filled with questions and was considered a potential weak link when spring training began in February in Dunedin, Florida, ended up leading the AL in ERA (3.78) and WHIP (1.23) and was second in innings pitched (1,459 1⁄3).
The Blue Jays ranked third in homers (221) and on-base percentage (.330) and fifth in runs (759), but the offense didn’t match the pitching in terms of day-in, day-out excellence.
“I’ve said all along, we wouldn’t be here today without our starting pitching,” outfielder Michael Saunders said. “It’s been the most consistent part of our team. Going into the season, in spring training, everyone was solely focused on our hitting, and rightfully so. We did something pretty special last year as a team. But our starting pitching has gone under the radar all year long.”
Bautista said “having three guys that are Cy Young candidates in one starting rotation is unheard of” — a bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but not dramatically so.
Righthander Marco Estrada, who will start Game 1 against Indians righty Corey Kluber (the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2014), went 9-9 this season but had a 3.48 ERA. Game 2 starter J.A. Happ certainly will get some Cy Young consideration after going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA, as will Aaron Sanchez, the announced Game 4 starter, who went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA.
Patchogue-Medford’s Marcus Stroman, who had his share of ups and downs in going 9-10, 4.37 but has manager John Gibbons’ confidence in the big moment, is likely to go in Game 3. Gibbons gave Stroman the ball in the wild-card game against the Orioles.
“They’ve given us a chance to win ballgames throughout the season,” Bautista said. “We [the offense] let them down a few times and we still had a pretty decent record. They’ve definitely been our mainstay and our rock that’s allowed us to be in this position today.”
Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis said the primary thing he’s noticed is how each of the starters brings something different.
“They’re definitely a talented group,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of guys with some good arms on that side, and it’s kind of coming from all angles. You have Estrada, with kind of mix-and-match [stuff]; Happ, a really talented lefty who pitched with a confidence this year, and then the studs in Sanchez and Stroman. It’s going to be a challenge.”
And the Blue Jays’ bullpen, led by closer Roberto Osuna, also was terrific.
“Really, our pitching has held steady all year,” Gibbons said. “Whether they’re getting enough credit, I’m not sure. But they know they’re good. They’ve really been a huge part of getting us here, really.”