The construct of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup is such that, if you can remove at least one of three men from affecting the game, you stand a good chance to win. Those three men are, of course, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista.
There are other good hitters, Michael Saunders logged a 117 wRC+ this year, just behind Bautista’s 122. But those top three stir the drink. Between the three of them you have 90 home runs this season, which likely could have eclipsed 100 had Bautista been healthier.
They are unspeakably powerful. Each is one of the best at their respective positions. Donaldson won the MVP last year, and Edwin is going to make a boat of money this offseason. But for whatever reason, Jays manager John Gibbons decides to surround them with actual bad hitters. Ezekiel Carrera’s 85 wRC+ is one of the worst on the team and he led off. Russell Martin has some power but had a terrible year as well and it's hurting the team. This means that, if you can create a plan to effectively eliminate one of the big three from the game you, in effect, have two other potentially easier outs while limiting the damage of the other two.
The Indians picked their target and dismantled him
You can't remove them all, but a precise attack on one can make the whole house of cards collapse. On Friday night the Cleveland Indians, whether on purpose or not, targeted and eliminated Jose Bautista.
It makes sense to go after Bautista. While he’s the weakest of the three at the plate this year, logging a 122 wRC+ and playing hurt, compared to the 155 from Donaldson and 134 from Encarnacion, he’s undoubtedly the emotional center of the team. He’s also the one that seems to find the moment and strike. He is a man with that Kirk Gibson-esque sense of the moment. Like I wrote about David Ortiz last week, he's the one you most don’t want to challenge or piss off. We saw what happened to the Rangers. Baseball may be an individual game, but in these high-emotion, intense October moments, I like players like Bautista. They flourish. The Indians didn’t allow that to happen.
In the first inning, he had his first chance. Two men on, one out. Anything, a fly ball to the outfield, a grounder up the middle, a 600-foot home run, would have taken the crowd down a bit and in more real terms given the Jays the lead. He didn’t see a single pitch he could solidly hit. Corey Kluber did this to him instead:
That is precisely one pitch actually in the strike zone, and it was a sinker running at him. He was also made to look such the fool when Kluber dropped those two sliders/curves on him. Just wiped him out. With him dispatched, it was quick work of Russell Martin, and the Indians were out of the inning. It was probably his biggest chance (though with those two other beasts in front of him in the order, he gets a ton) and he fell by the wayside.
Kluber faced him in the third, and Bautista worked a walk. But he didn’t actually work a walk, it was one of the most "unintentional intentional" walks I’ve seen in a long time. Four pitches, the only thing near the zone a nigh unhittable curve. Just look:
This was possible because Donaldson got antsy earlier in the inning, was looking fastball and got a curve, and popped out to short. Encarnacion got on, but Carrera had gotten out before Donaldson, so why not go after the slumping Martin instead? Kluber did just that, and got a strikeout like this:
In case you were curious, Pitch 2 was a ball that bounced five feet in front of the plate. Kluber did as he pleased, and finished off Martin to get out of the inning. Despite it being a two-men-on situation, it was a negligible actual problem. Again, poor lineup construction that could be fixed, but so far hasn't been. While lineup protection may be a fallacy, in this case, it allowed for Kluber to go after a weaker hitter and avoid pain
Bautista led off the sixth, and quite simply saw nothing. Despite wanting to make his mark on the game, he didn't even get a chance to take the bat off his shoulder. He went down looking. Kluber attacked him like so:
That is quite literally garbage. Bautista did get bit in the butt a bit by a bad call or two, but the zone had been like that much of the night. If anything it was Encarnacion a bit later that had reason to complain. Here’s the zone for all pitches in the game:
Those two strikes in the bottom right are Bautista and Encarnacion, both strikeouts looking. Both were pitches from Kluber, and Bautista's in the sixth is that further away pitch. So yes, there was some luck, but that’s how great pitchers work - they expand the zone subtly over the game. They weren't exact, but certainly not too heinous.
Bautista had one more chance, but at that point it had all become merely academic. That’s because Andrew Miller was on the hill, and he was simply scintillating. It was actually a decent battle, Bautista worked a full count and fouled one off before succumbing to Miller Time. Since it was a lefty, the attack looked quite different since Miller just relies on the similar look and massive velocity difference between the fastball and slider, and that mad break. As evidenced:
There was a definite plan of attack here, at least from Kluber. Bautista loves to pull the ball, going to that side of the field 53 percent of the time this year. It’s hard to pull a ball that’s on the other side of the plate, running away from you. He saw one pitch from Kluber that was remotely hittable on the inner half of the plate, and it was the first pitch he saw. After that, it was all away, and then a few buzzsaws from Miller.
The zone expanded late as Kluber pushed the envelope and Bautista suffered for it. It will be interesting to see how Tomlin will attack him, or whether there will be a different tactic used on another of the big three. For instance, Encarnacion has a negative rating against cutters, and Tomlin has a decent one. Perhaps that will be the target. The Jays are a much more top-heavy lineup, or at least one with a more obvious gravitational center than the Boston Red Sox. They have an obviously weak underbelly. This is a neat way to attack them.