TORONTO — Josh Donaldson signalled his intentions early Tuesday.
The Blue Jays MVP third baseman spoke from his heart during a team meeting prior to a do-or-die Game 4 against the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series.
He wanted their attention.
"I mean, everybody knew coming into today how important today was," he said later. "But at the same time I just wanted to kind of reiterate that and let the boys know that I was coming to play today."
Donaldson's solo homer in the third inning put the Jays in front for the first time in the series. He also made two sparkling fielding plays as Toronto downed the Indians 5-1 to stave off playoff elimination with their first win of the series.
"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," said Toronto starter Aaron Sanchez, who threw six strong innings. "There's nothing more I can say about J.D. ... I'm glad he's on our squad."
With Donaldson leading the way, the Toronto bats finally woke up. The Jays, who had totalled 17 hits in the first three games, outhit Cleveland 9-2.
Edwin Encarnacion drove in a pair of runs before a sellout of 49,142 under the roof at the Rogers Centre that finally had something to cheer about. Ezequiel Carrera went 2 for 4 with a thundering triple and drove in a run. There could have been more offence but the Jays left eight men on base and struck out eight times.
Four Toronto pitchers limited the Indians to two hits.
The Jays still face three more do-or-die games, two in Cleveland, if they are to survive the best-of-seven series, and history is against them. Since the introduction of the best-of-seven format in 1985, only one of 31 teams have rallied from an 0-3 deficit to win the ALCS (Boston, 2004).
Still the Jays are the first team since the 2004 Red Sox to be down 3-0 in LCS play and not be swept.
"We're still alive, no doubt," said manager John Gibbons.
"It was definitely good focus and the right things were said today." he added. "But that's one game. We've got another game (Wednesday). So see what the heck happens."
Added reliever Jason Grilli: "When our backs are up against the wall, it seems like we turn it up a notch. Come out swinging, that's what we're doing."
On the plus side for Toronto, the injury-riddled Cleveland starting rotation is not deep. Game 5 goes Wednesday with Marco Estrada against Indians rookie Ryan Merritt.
Donaldson, for one, is not ready to go home.
"I feel like we have the players in the clubhouse to be able to win the series," he said.
The Indians like their numbers, however.
"We're up the series, we still have the upper hand up 3-1," said reliever Bryan Shaw. "We've got to win one, they've got to win three."
After scoring just three runs in the first three games, the Toronto offence got out of first gear in a game that was a mirror image of the previous three. This time Toronto outpitched Cleveland and got the timely hits.
The loss snapped the Indians' nine-game win streak dating back to the regular season and Cleveland's franchise-record run of six straight post-season victories.
The Jays picked up solo runs in the third and fourth, two more in the seventh and one in the eighth to keep the scoreboard ticking.
Sanchez (1-0), inducing a string of Cleveland groundouts, gave up just one hit in his first four innings before yielding a run in the fifth when he threw 25 pitches. The 24-year-old right-hander, whose arm has been closely monitored in his first year as a starter after pitching in the bullpen, was well rested having last pitched Oct. 9 — his first career post-season start.
He gave up one run on two hits with two walks and five strikeouts in a 95-pitch performance that featured 54 strikes.
Kluber, the 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner, was pitching on three days rest for the first time in 135 career starts. He lasted five innings, giving up two runs on four hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in an 89-pitch outing that included 59 strikes.
Given he is down as the Indians Game 7 pitcher, if needed, Francona was loath to work him longer than necessary.
After two strikeouts by Kluber in bottom of the third, Donaldson hammered a 2-2 ball 402 feet to left-centre field. That ended Kluber's franchise-record streak of 16 scoreless post-season innings. Encarnacion almost immediately added to the total with a 374-foot fly ball caught by a jumping Lonnie Chisenhall in right field.
Kluber (2-1) issued back-to-back walks to open the Jays' half of the fourth. One strikeout later, Carrera's bloop single to centre scored Troy Tulowitzki for a 2-0 lead.
A one-out walk to Coco Crisp proved costly for the Jays in the fifth when, one out later, No. 9 hitter Roberto Perez doubled him home to cut the lead to 2-1. A glittering fielding play by Donaldson, snaring a rocket that left Carlos Santana's bat at 102 m.p.h., snuffed out the threat and the third baseman left the field pumping his fists.
Gibbons said Donaldson's defence gets overshadowed by his exploits with the bat.
"People recognize him for his offence. But he's a hell of a defender, too."
Donaldson also made a nice catch in foul territory in the sixth, twisting his body to see the ball.
Toronto loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh on a Ryan Goins single, a Shaw throwing error that put Jose Bautista on and intentional walk to Donaldson. With the crowd chanting "Eddie, Eddie," Encarnacion obliged with a two-run single to make it 4-1.
Toronto came into the do-or-die game in desperate need of offence. In the first three games of the series, the Jays hit .177 and struck out 34 times. Toronto had left 19 men on base and was hitting 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Tuesday's loss notwithstanding, the Indians remain a tough nut to crack.
How resilient are the Indians? Cleveland media reported that Francona lost the veneer off a tooth right before Game 3. He went to a dentist at 1 a.m. and had it restored to its rightful place.
Donaldson also had a rough night, thinking about how to fight off playoff elimination.
"There wasn't a whole lot of sleep, I'll tell you that," he said.
With files from Melissa Coutu and Gregory Strong.
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