October 05, 2016 - 12:32 PM
TORONTO - The bad blood between the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays has been on a steady boil since Jose Bautista's infamous bat flip in last year's American League Division Series.
A Rougned Odor right hook to Bautista's jaw after a hard slide last May took things to another level.
Simply put, these teams can't stand each other. And now they're ready to square off again for the right to advance to Major League Baseball's final four.
Toronto's dramatic wild-card game victory over Baltimore on Tuesday night set the stage for another round in this dogfight between bitter rivals.
Buckle up baseball fans: this best-of-five series starting Thursday at Globe Life Park could get wild.
On one side is the top-seeded team in the American League. The Rangers secured home-field advantage through the playoffs with a 95-67 record in the regular season.
On the other is a Blue Jays club that finished with an 89-73 mark but was forced to go into Game 7 mode for its last three games due to a September slump.
The Rangers are the favourites but the Blue Jays shouldn't be counted out.
"We're just looking to put them away," Bautista said. "We've got to win some ball games. The offence has been streaky so hopefully we can get on a roll."
Toronto has thrived under the recent pressure.
Weekend wins over the Boston Red Sox were impressive and Edwin Encarnacion's three-run homer in the 11th inning on Tuesday eliminated the Orioles and electrified Rogers Centre.
"We're not done," Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman said afterwards in the champagne-soaked locker-room. "We realize what we're capable of and we're going to take this (momentum) into the next series."
Toronto had a 4-3 edge in the season series over the Rangers.
Texas won the first two games on the road in last year's ALDS before the Blue Jays rebounded with three straight victories. Toronto's first post-season appearance in 22 years ended with a loss to the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series.
The offensive core of the Blue Jays' lineup remains the same with Bautista, Encarnacion and 2015 league MVP Josh Donaldson providing much of the power.
The pitching staff, expected to be a weaker link entering the 2016 campaign after the departure of ace David Price, has been strong.
Aaron Sanchez (15-2, AL-best 3.00 earned-run average) and southpaw J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.18) will both get Cy Young Award consideration. They provide a deep one-two punch and Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48) is a solid No. 3 option.
The offence, meanwhile, went cold during an 11-16 September but has been showing signs of improvement. The bullpen struggled last month and the loss of Joaquin Benoit (2-0, 0.38 ERA with the Jays) to a calf injury didn't help.
The relievers were in top form for the wild-card game though, as five different pitchers provided five innings of no-hit ball after Stroman worked six effective frames. There was cause for concern when Roberto Osuna left the game in the 10th inning due to a problem with his throwing shoulder.
He described it as a pain-free 'stretch' feeling, but expected to be ready for Game 2 after a couple days off.
"It wasn't a big deal," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "It just tightened up on him. The smart thing to do was just get him out of there."
The Rangers, meanwhile, have reliable starters in Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels along with a deep offence that includes Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, Elvis Andrus and Jonathan Lucroy.
Texas won the West Division title by a comfortable nine games over the Seattle Mariners.
Gibbons feels his team matches up well with the Rangers, and noted they have a good balance of offence, pitching and team speed to go with a solid bullpen.
"They've got the best record in the American League for a reason," Gibbons said. "That doesn't happen by accident."
The Rangers have reached the playoffs in five of the last seven years. Texas has never won the World Series while Toronto's last title came in 1993.
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016