The Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays will face off in the American League Championship Series, starting Friday night at Progressive Field. Not every series can be a classic; the average best-of-seven ALCS has lasted 5.6 games, with only six of the thirty previous editions going a full seven games. The Indians would likely be the favorites if both teams were at full strength, but the absence of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar from the Tribe rotation has made Toronto a slight favorite. (FiveThirtyEight has the Blue Jays at 53% to win the series.) Of course, the Indians weren't favored to beat Boston either, and they swept them right into the David-Ortiz-remembrance portion of the year. In the postseason, the unlikely isn't that unlikely.
Whether these two teams give us a classic seven-game series or not, we'll have to wait and see, but I want to take a moment to remember that these two teams have already given us a classic seven-game series this year, part of it played in late June and early July in Toronto, the other part played in Cleveland in August. And if the ALCS plays out the way those regular season games played out, fans of both teams might find themselves sent to an early grave by the stress of the next ten days.
If the ALCS were to replicate those regular season contests, it'd play out like this...
The stunning return of Carlos Carrasco from what was thought to be a season-ending injury sparked the Indians to a victory in the series opener. He pitched 7.1 innings, allowing a Josh Donaldson home run, but little else, and striking out 14, setting a new franchise record for strikeouts in a postseason game. Rajai Davis and Jason Kipnis each homered early for the Tribe, while Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin each drove in an insurance run, making the final score 4-1.
Josh Tomlin made his second strong start of the postseason, going six innings while allowing only one run, and striking out out eight. Marcus Stroman was equally impressive though. Jason Kipnis singled to score Carlos Santana, but the Blue Jays tied the game on a home run by Justin Smoak. The bullpens took over in the seventh inning, and they were incredible. The two teams traded zero through the ninth inning... through the twelfth inning... the fifteenth... the eighteenth... By that point it had become the longest game in postseason history, on its way to a staggering total of 6 hours and 13 minutes. A lot of folks in northwest Ohio and parts of Canada would be late for church on Sunday, but they'd be forgiven. With the bullpen spent, Trevor Bauer had been sent in for the fifteenth, and he proceeded to throw five shutout innings. Santana led off the bottom of the nineteenth for the Tribe, and blasted a home run to deep right-center field, sending the crowd at Progressive Field into hysterics, and putting the Indians ahead two games to none.
The series then shifted to Toronto, and the trip through customs managed to put some life back into the bats, as a slugfest broke out. Rajai Davis led off the game with another home run, but Edwin Encarnacion struck back with a three-run shot in the bottom half of the inning. Davis later tripled in a run, and Carlos Santana later homered, tying the game back up, but a Troy Tulowitzki home run in fifth but the Blue Jays ahead again. The Tribe rallied again though, tying and then taking the lead in the seventh. A home run by Josh Donaldson tied it right back up though, and Terry Francona made the curious decision to pitch Tommy Hunter in the eighth, confusing both because Andrew Miller still hadn't pitched during the entire series, and because Hunter had been released by the Tribe in August. The unconventional move didn't work out, as the Blue Jays scored three runs and won the game 9-6.
Things went even worse for the Indians in Game 4, as 20-game winner J.A. Happ struck out 11 while allowing only one run in seven innings, and Corey Kluber had one of the worst games of his career, lasting only 3.1 innings while allowing five runs. The bullpen only made things worse. Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzski, and Justin Smoak each homered for the Blue Jays, and Josh Donaldson had four hits. The Tribe lost 17-1 in a game that tied the Major League record for most lopsided scored in a postseason game. The series was now tied two games apiece.
Despite having thrown five innings of relief three days earlier, Trevor Bauer got the start for the Indians, and the short rest proved not to be a problem, as he struck out 13 in eight innings of work, while allowing only two runs, both coming on a home run by Russell Martin.Mike Napoli singled in a run in the sixth, but the Tribe still trailed 2-1 entering the ninth inning. Jose Ramirez tied the game with a shot over the wall down the right-field line, hit off Toronto closer Roberto Osuna. That brought Tyler Naquin to the plate for one of the most incredible plays in postseason history. Naquin hit what looked like it might be a go-ahead home run, but the ball instead bounced off the wall in right. It may have been a double if Melvin Upton had been backing the play up properly (defensive wiz Kevin Pillar probably should have been playing in such an important moment, but that's another story), but instead, Naquin made it all the way around for an inside-the-park home run to give Cleveland a 3-2 lead. The Indians exploded from their dugout to celebrate at home plate, perhaps forgetting they were on the road, and a bottom of the ninth was still needed. In another surprising move, Francona went with Jeff Manship, who pitched a 1-2-3 inning to close out the game, putting the Indians one win away from AL pennant.
It was Josh Tomlin's turn again, but he wasn't nearly as sharp this time, giving up home runs to Russell Martin and Melvin Upton that put the Indians in a 5-0 hole. The Tribe battled back in the bottom of the fourth though, with a three-run home run by Lonnie Chisenhall (on the tenth pitch of the at bat) capping the rally and tying the game. Unfortunately, the very next batter Tomlin faced, Edwin Encarnacion homered, putting Toronto back ahead, 6-5. Cleveland never really got any offense going again, and the score didn't change, which meant the series was tied, and there would be a decisive Game 7. Indians fans could only hope it would go better than it did in 2007.
Corey Kluber was brought back on short rest, given an opportunity to redeem himself after his struggles in Game 4. In the top of the third, Melvin Upton homered, and Josh Donaldson singled in a second run later in the inning. The Indians were struggling to get any offense going against Marcus Stroman, but Carlos Santana led off the bottom of the sixth with a single, moved to second on a single by Jason Kipnis, and scored on a single by Francisco Lindor. With runners on first and second, and nobody out, the Tribe seemed poised to score more than just the one run that inning, but it was not to be. With two outs in the seventh, and Toronto still ahead 2-1, Kluber ran into trouble. The bases were loaded when Terry Francona decided to go to Mike Clevinger, who caught Edwin Encarnacion looking at strike three to end the inning. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, things had begun to look grim for Cleveland, but Lindor singled, and then Jose Ramirez ripped the first pitch he saw down the left-field line for a two-run homer. Cody Allen retired the first two batters he faced, but then walked Donaldson and Encarnacion, because nothing can be easy in the life of an Indians fan. That next at bat went to a 3-2 count, but Russell Martin wound up hitting a harmless line drive to Lonnie Chisenhall, and the Tribe advanced to its first World Series in 19 years!
Carlos Santana led the Indians with a .424 OBP in the series, and with four extra-base hits and six runs scored, but Jose Ramirez was named ALCS MVP after leading the team with ten hits and six RBI, and hitting the home run that made the difference in Game 7. Meanwhile, scores of Indians fans were not around to see that home run, having been felled by the strain of five one-run games, including a 19-inning marathon and an inside-the-park home run. Those who survived would always consider it one of the greatest postseason series in baseball history.