ALCS preview: Indians vs. Blue Jays is a battle of different styles

Big League Stew

The Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays are proof that you can make a playoff run with vastly different kind of rosters. Offensively, that’s by design. When it comes to the pitching staffs, that has more to do with circumstance. What remains to be seen is what will make the difference when they match up in the American League Championship Series, beginning Friday in Cleveland.

The Indians are a team that, for the most part, manufactures runs with sustained rallies. They’re pretty darn good at it, too, and their versatile bench helps with that. Toronto has a lineup full of home-run hitters and when they’re hot, as they are right now, they’re near impossible to slow down.

You’ll find the Blue Jays and Indians first and second in the AL in ERA, respectively. But they took different paths to get there. Toronto’s at the top on the strength of their starting pitchers. Cleveland’s starters were fine, too, actually ranking second in ERA, but their combined ERA was 4.08 compared to the Blue Jays’ 3.64 ERA. And now two of their best starters are hurt. The Indians make up for it with their bullpen, though, which ranked second in the AL with a 3.45 ERA, while the Jays were 12th with a 4.11 ERA. What both teams do well is play defense. Francisco Lindor is a wizard with the glove at shortstop for Cleveland and his Toronto counterpart Troy Tulowitzki remains one of the best in baseball while Kevin Pillar has staked his claim as one of the most outstanding center fielders.

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Their contrasting styles sets up for an exciting series, and with a World Series berth riding on it, the Indians and Blue Jays are sure to be striving to take advantage of their distinctive traits and win with their strengths.

SCHEDULE
Game 1: Friday, Oct. 14, in Cleveland, 8 p.m. ET (TV coverage on TBS and Sportsnet)
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 15, in Cleveland, 4 p.m. ET (TBS and Sportsnet)
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 17, in Toronto, 8 p.m. ET (TBS and Sportsnet)
Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 18, in Toronto, 4 p.m. ET (TBS and Sportsnet)
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 19, in Toronto, 4 p.m. ET (TBS and Sportsnet)
Game 6:* Friday, Oct. 21, in Cleveland, 8 p.m. ET (TBS and Sportsnet)
Game 7:* Saturday, Oct. 22 in Cleveland, TBA (TBS and Sportsnet)
*if necessary

PREVIOUSLY
Cleveland edged Toronto 4-3 in the season series, but there were some wild games this year between these two teams. July 1: Indians win 2-1 … in 19 innings. July 3: A 17-1 Blue Jays beatdown. Aug 19: Cleveland wins 3-2 on a walk-off inside-the-park home run.

Corey Kluber leads the Indians staff, but it’s sketchy after that. (AP)
Corey Kluber leads the Indians staff, but it’s sketchy after that. (AP)

PITCHING
Game 1: Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48 ERA) vs. Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 ERA)
Game 2: J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.18 ERA) vs. Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26 ERA)
Game 3: Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40 ERA) vs. Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA)
Game 4: Mike Clevinger (3-3, 5.26 ERA) vs. Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00 ERA)
Game 5*: TBD
Game 6:* TBD
Game 7:* TBD

There are distinct differences between the state of these two teams’ pitching staffs. The Blue Jays have a deep and talented starting rotation. Cleveland’s advantage is in the bullpen. While Toronto may not have any pitcher that can match Corey Kluber’s résumé, they have four pitchers in Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman that you can trust to start a playoff game. Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and rookie Mike Clevinger are scheduled to follow Kluber and while they’ll be underdog against any of the Jays’ starters, that’s OK. That’s because the Indians have relievers Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero, giving them an incredibly dynamic back-end of their ‘pen. Roberto Osuna is the main man in relief for the Blue Jays, with Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli and Brett Cecil also having prominent roles.

The Blue Jays lean on their ability to hit home runs to generate offense. (Getty Images)
The Blue Jays lean on their ability to hit home runs to generate offense. (Getty Images)

THREE KEYS FOR BLUE JAYS
Home Run Heavy: The Blue Jays found their power stroke in the ALDS, as seven players combined to hit eight homers in the three-game sweep of Texas. The offense can be overly reliant on the longball (46.1% of their runs this season came on home runs) but if they balls are flying out of the park like they did in the division series Toronto’s lineup is as dangerous as any.

Don’t Doubt Donaldson: There were questions about Donaldson’s health heading into the playoffs. He slumped at the plate in September and underwent an MRI on his ailing hip. Whatever was bugging Donaldson then, isn’t causing any issues now, as he’s posted a 1.304 OPS over four postseason games. If he’s going to continue playing at a high level, the Blue Jays will be tough to beat.

Game Over Osuna: Toronto’s relievers have risen to the occasion in the playoffs so far, allowing two earned runs over 14 innings, and their closer has been at the center of the success. Osuna left the wild-card game win with a shoulder injury, but rebounded with two scoreless appearances in the ALDS. They’re going to keep leaning on him to carry, and cover for, the rest of the bullpen.

Reliever Andrew Miller is Terry Francona’s x-factor in the series. (Getty Images)
Reliever Andrew Miller is Terry Francona’s x-factor in the series. (Getty Images)

THREE KEYS FOR INDIANS
Miller Time: Terry Francona showed twice in the ALDS that he’s not afraid to use Miller unconventionally. The powerful left-hander came into Game 1 in the fifth inning and Game 3 in the sixth inning, much earlier than most shutdown relievers would appear, to pitch in high-leverage situations. The results? Four innings, no runs allowed and most importantly two Indians wins. We’ll see in what creative ways Francona deploys Miller against a tough Jays lineup.

Clutch Kluber: Kluber has a Cy Young award to his name and is a contender to win it again this year. With injuries ripping apart Cleveland’s rotation, it falls even more on Kluber to be at his best like he was in a Game 2 win over the Red Sox. He’ll get Game 1 of this series and definitely one more. And if the Indians need him to stat a third game, or maybe come in to pitch in relief, that shouldn’t be ruled out either.

Running Wild: No team stole more bases this year than Cleveland and they’ll likely try to wreck havoc on the basepaths in this series. Rajai Davis led the AL in stolen bases with 43 and three of his teammates had at least 15. Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin has historically been good at putting at stop to opponents’ running game, but this season he threw just 15% of attempted base-stealers.

FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS

• 53: Home wins by Cleveland this season. Only the Cubs had more.

• 1.306: Donaldson’s career OPS against Kluber in 19 at-bats. He should be confident at the plate against Cleveland’s ace, even in a pressure-packed spot.

• -17: Defensive Runs Saved, or not saved in this case, by Cleveland center fielder Tyler Naquin, the second-worst mark among all major-league center fielders.

• 4.80: The Blue Jays’ bullpen ERA over the final month of the regular season. Have they figured it out (1.29 ERA in the playoffs)? Or is another implosion incoming?

• 6: Number of consecutive games won by both Toronto and Cleveland entering Game 1. One team will extend their streak to seven Friday and have a 1-0 series lead.

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Israel Fehr is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at israelfehr@yahoo.ca or follow him on Twitter.

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