No team in the major leagues scored more often in 2015 than the Toronto Blue Jays, and no team hit more home runs.
The Blue Jays also led baseball in walks, so a lineup that was already good enough became even better and their biggest hitters got more at-bats when opposing pitchers were handing out free passes.
Martin Perez, Chi Chi Gonzalez and the Texas Rangers saw that firsthand Sunday night in their first chance to close out the American League Division Series at home. Fortunately for the Rangers, they get a second chance.
Troy Tulowitzki hit a three-run homer with two outs in the sixth as Toronto finally broke through with a big inning, and the Rangers were blanked over the first six innings by Marco Estrada in a 5-1 loss.
The Rangers lead the best-of-five series 2-1 and can secure a spot in the AL Championship Series with a Game 4 victory at 3:07 p.m. Monday at Globe Life Park. Derek Holland will start for the Rangers against former Rangers first-round pick R.A. Dickey.
“They’re a great baseball team,” left fielder Josh Hamilton said. “They’re going to fight. They’re not going to give up, and we didn’t expect them to.”
The game got away from the Rangers in the sixth after they used double plays the previous three innings to keep it a 2-0 game.
Perez breezed through the first two innings on 29 pitches, but found trouble to start the third when a Dioner Navarro line drive fooled Delino DeShields and went over his head for a double. Kevin Pillar followed with an infield single, and Navarro scored the game’s first run as Ryan Goins bounced into a double play.
Josh Donaldson doubled to start the fourth and was at third with one out when Perez said that he lost his arm slot. He walked Edwin Encarnacion intentionally and then walked Chris Colabello and Tulowitzki to make it 2-0.
Navarro bounced into an inning-ending double play to get Perez off the hook, and the left-hander avoided more trouble in the fifth when Ben Revere lined into a double play to eliminate a runner at third base.
“We got the ground balls when we needed to, to limit some of the damage,” manager Jeff Banister said. “We still had an opportunity down two runs.”
Perez, though, didn’t escape the sixth, which started with singles by Donaldson and Jose Bautista. Gonzalez entered and walked Encarnacion to load the bases, but Colabello grounded into a first-home-first double play.
Gonzalez needed to get Tulowitzki, who got ahead in the count 3-1, fouled off the next pitch and lofted a hanging changeup over the wall in left field for a 5-0 lead. First base was open with the switch-hitting Navarro behind him, and Gonzalez said that he was trying to pitch Tulowitzki delicately.
“We were trying to pitch around him,” Gonzalez said. “The pitch got too much plate.”
The Rangers’ offense didn’t give the pitchers any margin for error. They didn’t get their first hit against Estrada until Hanser Alberto doubled with two outs in the third, and the lone run came in the seventh on a grounder by Rougned Odor after Elvis Andrus and Hamilton singled with one out.
Three Toronto relievers retired the final eight Rangers hitters in a row to seal the must-win.
“He’s been tough the whole year,” Andrus said of Estrada. “He did it again. The angle, over the top, and he likes to throw high fastballs and he has an extremely good changeup and curveball. So, it was his day.”
The Rangers won’t be eliminated if they don’t win Game 4, so technically it’s not a must-win contest. But they don’t want to return to Toronto, where left-hander David Price and right-hander Marcus Stroman would be fully rested in a ballpark where the Blue Jays won 53 times in the regular season.
Fortunately for the Rangers, they get a second chance to clinch at home Monday.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be that easy,” Andrus said. “There’s a reason they won their division as well. Today was a tough game. They got the momentum the whole game. We’ll turn the page and be ready for tomorrow.”
ALDS: Rangers vs. Blue Jays
Thursday: Rangers 5, Toronto 3 (Rangers lead series 1-0)
Friday: Rangers 6, Toronto 4 (14), (Rangers lead series 2-0)
Sunday: Toronto 5, Rangers 1 (Rangers lead series 2-1)
Gm. 4: at Texas, 3 p.m. Monday, FS1
Gm. 5: at Toronto, 3 p.m. Wednesday*, FS1