As far as first impressions are concerned, the Toronto Blue Jays checked off all the boxes on Thursday night in Arlington.
Marco Estrada was brilliant, the slumbering bats awoke en masse, and the Blue Jays now turn the ball over to their unlikely 20-game winner in hoped of bringing a 2-0 series lead home to the Rogers Centre.
J.A. Happ gets the nod for Toronto in game two and is coming off the strongest season of his career. The veteran left-hander went 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA and career-high workload of 195.0 regular season innings. Fatigue hasn’t been an issue, though, as Happ stepped on the gas over his final five starts in September.
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In those outings, totalling 30.2 innings, Happ held his opponents to an even .200 batting average and a 2.35 ERA to help Toronto get over the hump and into the A.L. Wild Card game. He’s now faced with a Texas lineup that has changed a great deal since he last saw them on May 5th, most notably with the additions of Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Lucroy, and Carlos Gomez.
Back in early May, Happ pitched seven strong innings against the Rangers on just 90 pitches, allowing one run on six hits and striking out five. Texas’ additions could be problematic however, as Beltran holds a career line of 10-for-32 (.313) with three home runs against Happ while Lucroy has gone 7-for-19 (.368).
Yu Darvish hasn’t seen these Blue Jays for a long, long time, so they’ll also be presenting a fresh challenge to the right-hander. His last game against Toronto came on July 18th of 2014 before being shut down and eventually requiring a Tommy John surgery that kept him out until late May of this season.
He’s made a fantastic return, however, and is throwing his fastball nearly 1.0 mile-per-hour faster than his previous career average while forcing a higher rate of soft contact. His slider usage, which peaked at 37.5% in 2013, has dropped to 20.8% as he focuses more primarily on that fastball.
Darvish’s 100.1 regular season innings lined up very naturally with his career statistics, which is relieving news for the Texas Rangers and Darvish, who will become a free agent following the 2017 season.
Stretching back for some career batter-vs.-pitcher numbers, Edwin Encarnacion has hit Darvish well, going 5-for-16 (.313) with two home runs. Jose Bautista hasn’t figured out the Japanese star, though, going 1-for-18 (.056) with 9 strikeouts.
There has been no confirmation on the status of closer Roberto Osuna (shoulder), who entered Thursday’s series opener as a “game-time decision”, though he told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi that he was available if needed. Even if Osuna is unable to pitch today, the Blue Jays do have a rested bullpen following Estrada’s 8.1-inning performance. A combination of Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini, Brett Cecil, and Francisco Liriano would be called upon to work the later innings with Grilli’s closing experience making him a candidate for the ninth.