KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The dark heart of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup turns opposing starters into bomb technicians. The hitters make a pitcher’s work intricate and frazzled, presenting only two persistent options: precision or catastrophe. Veteran right-hander Edinson Volquez stepped up to the challenge Friday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. He used his savvy, his guile and his best stuff. For six innings, Volquez rode the ragged edge of anxiety and never broke a sweat. He knew when to snip the red wire.
Volquez and the Kansas City Royals quieted the rambunctious Blue Jays in a 5-0 victory at Kauffman Stadium, seized a 1-0 lead and moved three wins away from a World Series return. Volquez surrendered two hits, tap-danced around four walks, struck out five and fired 111 pitches. The Royals’ bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and cameo closer Luke Hochevar slammed the door. After their loud entry into the ALCS, the Blue Jays dropped Game 1 with a whimper.
Bad blood from a regular season fracas never surfaced, but the Royals sent a message with their play. Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain swatted run-scoring hits in a two-run third inning, and catcher Salvador Perez clobbered a fourth-inning homer off Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada. The Blue Jays barked at home plate umpire Tony Randazzo’s strike zone all night, which meant they made more noise with their mouths than their bats.
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The Blue Jays will turn in Game 2 to supposed ace left-hander David Price, who posted a 7.20 ERA in the division series. Taxed from the emotional toll of their bonkers Game 5 victory over the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays mustered little fight, even against an opponent with whom they share a volatile history.
In their last regular season meeting, on Aug. 2, Volquez drilled MVP candidate Josh Donaldson with a fastball and benches later cleared twice. Afterward, Volquez charged Donaldson with “crying like a little baby.” Donaldson referred to Volquez as “some pretty good hitting.” Tempers remained calm, but then Volquez never allowed a fuse to be lit.
Volquez publicized his game plan Thursday afternoon, vowing he would fire fastballs inside. Warming up in the bullpen, Volquez dotted his sinker low and away, with more power than usual. Instinct told him to rely on it. Walking in from the bullpen with Perez, Volquez scrapped his original plan and decided to hammer low-and-away sinkers. He also turned to Perez and said, “I feel sexy tonight.”
He came out amped, rifling one first-inning fastball 97 mph, but the Blue Jays still made him toss 24 pitches. He peppered the edges of the strike zone. His curveball and change-up kept hitters off balance and created weak contact. He induced just one strikeout with a swing. He kept throwing 95-97 all night, a significant jump on a pitch that averaged 93.4 this season.
“I don’t know where that was coming from,” Volquez said.
“He made a few mistakes inside that I can remember in my at-bats,” Donaldson said. “I just kind of fouled them off. Some of that has to do with his added velo tonight. It made everything a little bit better. As a hitter, there’s between 92-94 and 95-97. I know it probably doesn’t sound like much. There’s a difference. When you’ve having to deal with that and then he’s able to flip that curveball in for strikes, it’s difficult.”
Volquez’s final inning doubled as a high-wire act. Donaldson and Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays’ AL Division Series hero, took a combined 17 pitches to draw two walks, with Bautista battling from a 1-2 count. Herrera warmed up in the bullpen. Pitching coach Dave Eiland strutted to the mound and told him, “Slow down a little bit.” Edwin Encarnacion, another fearsome power hitter, ambled to the batter’s box. Manager Ned Yost decided he would summon Herrera if another hitter reached, but he stuck with Volquez.
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“I’ve been in that situation before,” Volquez said. “The key in that situation is, don’t panic. Stay focused on what you want to do and keep the ball down.”
Volquez froze Encarnacion with a 95-mph sinker over the outside corner for strike three, a pitch Randazzo granted him all game. “It’s like, if you want to call away, let’s go away,” Volquez said. As Volquez engaged in an eight-pitch confrontation with Chris Colabello, fans chanted, “Ed-die! Ed-die!” Volquez had never heard that before at Kaufmann Stadium.
“They gave me more energy to pitch the way I pitched that inning,” Volquez said.
Colabello lined a 95-mph to left fielder Alex Gordon. Up came Troy Tulowitzki, 2 for 21 in the postseason. Volquez rifled seven fastballs at him. Tulowitzki fouled off one and took the other six – including strike three, the 37th pitch Volquez threw in the sixth inning. Volquez pumped his fist, and Kaufmann Stadium roared.
“He didn’t give in at all,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “It was comforting to see him missing just off the plate.”
Both teams confronted injury scares late. Donaldson clipped Perez’s mitt with a backswing, drawing a visit from the trainer but not knocking Perez out of the game. Encarnacion exited in the eighth inning and went for X-rays on his middle finger, an appendage that has hurt him for a while.
The Royals are playing like a team that knows what it wants and possesses everything necessary to attain it. Inside their clubhouse Wednesday night, after the obligatory pops of champagne corks and Budweiser showers, the Royals mingled and made small talk. Hours after the Toronto Blue Jays gained entry into the ALCS and reacted with unchecked revelry, the Royals commemorated their series victory with subdued celebration. The restraint symbolized the Royals’ outlook, a testament to the clarity of their mission. The Royals intend to bridge the gap between ending 90 feet away and hoisting a World Series pennant.
“This is year is definitely a lot different,” Hosmer said. “We expect to play good baseball. We expect to play our brand of baseball. We know we can do that. We know this team is tough to beat. The mentality is way different than it was last year.”
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The Royals are a mission to take one step further. Behind Volquez, they crept one game closer.