It’s tough to tell when the 49,834 people inside the Rogers Centre grew quietest in Thursday’s highly anticipated series opener against the Texas Rangers: when Josh Donaldson stayed down for a brief, but uncomfortable moment after hitting his head on a slide into second base, or when the Rangers twice extended their lead with shell-shocking home runs off of David Price?
When Jose Bautista was taken out of the game after popping up in the eighth inning, the despondent crowd barely seemed to notice.
Yes, there were multiple losses for the Blue Jays on Thursday, a day when everything seemed to go wrong for the once-streaking club. They lost the game — the first of the best-of-five series — 5-3, and they lost two of their best players to injury. How long they’ll be out remains to be seen.
Donaldson, the Jays’ third baseman and the leading candidate to win the American League MVP, left the game in the fourth inning — “as a precaution,” the team said — with a possible head injury. Donaldson’s helmeted head struck the knee of Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor as he slid into second to break up a potential double play. Donaldson took the field in the top of the fifth and cleanly fielded a routine ground ball. But when it came time for him to hit in the bottom half he was replaced by Ezequiel Carrera. Cliff Pennington took his place at third in the sixth.
The team reported that Donaldson cleared Major League Baseball’s mandatory concussion tests and will be reevaluated tomorrow.
Jays manager John Gibbons said Donaldson felt “light-headed” after playing in the field: “They check for concussions and he apparently passed all the tests, so that’s good news. We’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
Bautista, meanwhile, left the game with a cramp in his right hamstring and is expected to play in Friday’s game.
The Rangers also suffered a key injury on Thursday as their veteran third baseman, Adrian Beltre, left the game in the third inning with lower-back stiffness after driving in the Rangers’ second run.
While the immediate reports on Donaldson and Bautista were favourable, Thursday was certainly not the way the Jays had hoped to begin this long-awaited postseason.
Besides the obvious, there were other letdowns.
Price, their accomplished ace, pitching on 11 days rest after skipping his final start of the season, was uncharacteristically erratic and the Jays’ heralded offence failed to muster much of anything against Rangers right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who has had their number all season.
For Price, Thursday marked his sixth straight playoff loss and his fourth straight playoff loss to the Rangers, going back to his time with the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I want that monkey off my back,” he said. “I expect to have better results out there on the field. I didn’t throw the ball the way that I’m capable today and I’ll be ready to go whenever it’s my turn again.”
Price, who walked two batters in the first, said his early lack of command was due to nerves rather than any lingering rust after the long layoff. “Those guys want it just as bad as we do. I didn’t step up today.”
So after waiting 22 years for their first taste of playoff action, Jays fans were left wanting more on Thursday.
The heaving, expectant crowd was excited early, though, chanting in unison a half-hour before first pitch and deafening in spurts on Thursday.
But when the Rangers’ number-nine hitter — catcher Robinson Chirinos — got just enough of Price’s two-seam fastball in the bottom of the fifth inning to send the ball over the wall in left-centre field, all the air seemed to be sucked out of the closed dome.
The Rangers have now beaten Price four times in the playoffs and have become something of a bogeyman to the Jays’ ace.
Since joining the Jays at the trade deadline, Price had not allowed more than one home run in a start — until Thursday. Neither had he hit a batter since joining the Jays. He plunked two on Thursday.
With Price out of sorts, the crowd slumped into an anxious, murmuring hush.
Meanwhile, Gallardo, the Rangers’ less-than-intimidating right-hander continues to own the Jays. Despite a distinct lack of velocity or swing-and-miss stuff, Gallardo mixed and matched his varied repertoire to hold the league’s highest-scoring offence to just a pair of runs on four hits and a walk through five innings on Thursday.
On Friday the Jays will turn to 24-year-old Marcus Stroman, their budding ace, in hopes of salvaging at least a series split before heading to Arlington. The task won’t be easy, with the Rangers sending Cole Hamels, their own deadline-acquired ace, to the mound.
“You always look forward to the days that Stro’s pitching,” Gibbons said. There’s something about him — he always rises to the occasion — so we feel really good.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us with Hamels, no doubt. … It’s important we win at home. We did very good here all year. So yeah, tomorrow’s a big game for us, but really the perfect guy going.”
Gibbons said he takes heart in the resilience his club showed all season.
“We’ve lost some tough games and we don’t lose many in a row normally,” he said. “So it will be a good bounce-back day for us. Like I say we’re facing their ace tomorrow, Hamels, that definitely won’t be easy. But we like the matchup and we’ll see. One thing I know about us is that we always seem to respond.”
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