October 13, 2016 - 7:50 PM
CLEVELAND - A loose bunch of Blue Jays wasted little time making some changes to their Progressive Field home away from home for the American League Championship Series with Cleveland.
With the clubhouse closed to the media during the post-season, it was up to centre-fielder Kevin Pillar to partially spill the beans.
"All of our name plates have been changed from our normal names," Pillar said as the Toronto players met reporters in a stadium restaurant ahead of Game 1 Friday with the Indians. "I wasn't in there during it but someone's given everyone nicknames already. Not the nicest of nicknames but that's just how we are — we keep it loose, we keep it fun.
"No one is safe, whether you're the MVP, a multiple-time all-star or the rookie sitting across. Everyone's got free rein to say what they want and do what they want and that's what makes the environment so fun."
Could he reveal his nickname, Pillar was asked.
"No, no. I won't," he said quickly.
How about any nickname?
"No, not sharing them," Pillar said, vigorously shaking his head.
Staying loose is nothing new for the Blue Jays, who are trying to make the most of the post-season moment after falling one game short of the World Series last season on a dramatic night in Kansas City.
"Enjoy (it)," veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said Thursday. "That's what I try to tell all these young guys on the team. It's not easy to get here. For it to be our second year in a row speaks volumes about the guys on this team."
Having recovered from a 3-9 start to September, they fought their way into the playoffs, survived the wild-card hurdle and swept Texas in the AL Division Series. The Jays are feeling pretty good about themselves.
"I'd say we're looser," Tulowitzki said. "Just because we know the group that we have and we're at our best when we're loose. Our backs have been up against the wall really for a good portion of the season if you look at it. We didn't win our division. We never went on a huge huge run the whole season. We grinded the whole way through."
"We feel like we're just playing with house money a little bit," he added. "And it's really the way to go for us. We have fun with it. We play better like that. And we're trying to stay the same."
Manager John Gibbons says his players have succeeded in doing just that.
"They haven't changed along the way one bit. Good times, bad times. I think that's good for a team," he said, leaning back in his chair in a spartan visiting manager's office that could double as a home to a prison administrator.
"I haven't noticed one difference, to be honest with you."
Catcher Russell Martin does see a calmness and maturity growing out of the team's experience in last year's post-season. But he also sees a group having fun playing baseball.
"We like to make it seem bigger than what it is," he said. "Really we're playing the game we've been playing for I don't know how long, most guys have been playing it since they were kids."
Slugger Jose Bautista also detects excitement.
"I think everybody's just eager to get going," he said. "We showed up today after two days off, everybody's giddy and excited to go out to batting practice, which is not necessarily the attitude in September when it comes to practice. I think our heads are in a good place."
The Indians present a considerable challenge.
Cleveland (94-67) won the AL Central before sweeping the Boston Red Sox. Toronto (89-73) finished as the top wild card, defeating Baltimore in a one-off before dispatching Texas in three straight.
The Indians can manufacture runs with their bats and speed, ranking fourth in the majors with 134 stolen bases (Toronto was 25th with 54). Andrew Miller and Cody Allen lead a more than capable bullpen.
Manager Terry Francona helps keep things ticking. "Seems like he does press those right buttons a lot," said Tulowitzki.
The Jays swung for the fences, ranking fourth in the majors with 221 home runs (Cleveland was 18th with 185). Toronto's starting rotation, meanwhile, led the AL in ERA (3.64) and opponents' average (.236) among other categories.
In fact, the Jays were the only AL team whose starters' ERA was under 4.00. (Cleveland was next at 4.08 despite September injuries to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco).
The Jays confirmed a starting rotation of Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.
"We feel good about any of them," Gibbons said of his starters.
Estrada (9-0, 3.48 ERA) faces right-hander Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.41 ERA) to open the series.
Gibbons says second baseman Devon Travis, who has been nursing a sore knee, is feeling fine.
But Toronto has a decision to make on pitcher Francisco Liriano, who is eligible to return for Game 2 Saturday under Major League Baseball's concussion protocol. The Jays cannot replace Liriano before then if they want to use him in the series, which means going with 24 Friday.
They planned further tests on Liriano before announcing their roster Friday morning.
"If all is well, he should be good to go," said Gibbons.
The Indians won four of the seven meetings between the two this season.
"They were incredible, incredible games," said Jays president Mark Shapiro, who spent 24 seasons with the Indians prior to joining Toronto. "Our series against them were tough, hard-fought, close battles. And so I guess if I have to guess, it's going to be a tough series. Two very different but evenly matched teams."
Both Cleveland and Toronto have won their last six games.
With files from Gregory Strong
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016