After going 0-for-6 with two strikeouts on Friday, Josh Hamilton is hitless, as well as walkless, in his last 27 postseason at-bats dating back to the 2012 wild card game. And it’s not like he’s making good outs. He’s swinging at everything, and he went his first eight ALDS at-bats without hitting a ball out of the infield.
At this point, it’s worth wondering whether the Rangers should be playing Hamilton at all. He hit two homers in an 11-10 loss to the Angels last Saturday, but those were his only two homers since he came off the DL when rosters expanded last month. He’s 7-for-38 (.184) with one additional extra-base hit, four RBI and a 16/1 K/BB ratio during that span.
The Rangers also realize that Hamilton is not their best defensive left fielder, which is why he’s typically pulled in favor of Will Venable when the team has a lead.
Of course, the Rangers are up 2-0 on the Blue Jays. There’s certainly no sense of urgency for making a switch and putting Hamilton on the bench. If he turns in another 0-for as part of a Game 3 loss, that would begin to change. The Rangers have alternatives. They used Mike Napoli in left field at times late in the regular season, and while that’s a clear defensive downgrade even from Hamilton, they could go that route next time they face a lefty. Venable and Drew Stubbs would offer more defense, probably at the expense of offense. Venable has had solid seasons in the past, but he was hit just .182/.325/.227 in 66 at-bats after arriving from the Padres this summer, and he wasn’t great early on, either. Stubbs hasn’t started a game since Sept. 23 and was just 2-for-21 with the Rangers after being picked up for the final month.
For now Hamilton seems like a given to start Game 3. And if he picks up a couple of hits, any talk of him being benched will go away for a spell. Still, the Rangers need to at least stick him behind Rougned Odor in the bottom half of their lineup. Odor looks like one of the Rangers’ best players right now, yet he never got to hit with a man on base Friday batting behind Hamilton. Hamilton hit with six men on base.
Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.
Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.
Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.
It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.
With their rented ace on the mound and the home crowd riled up, this was supposed to be the Blue Jays’ game. After all, they’re the one overwhelming favorite to win their LDS. Well, they were. After a 5-3 loss to the Rangers on Thursday, the Blue Jays face an uphill climb to advance in the best-of-five series.
It’s not over, obviously. For one thing, the Blue Jays get to face left-handers in at least two of the next three games, and the Jays destroy southpaws. The Jays will have the pitching advantages in Texas after Friday’s Game 2 showdown against Cole Hamels, and they’ll probably have a sharper David Price out there next time if the series goes five games.
How Toronto’s lineup shapes up in the coming days will hinge on the health of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. Donaldson passed his initial concussion tests after colliding with Rougned Odor‘s knee, but he’d be far from the first player to experience lasting effects after initially getting the all clear. Bautista, too, is expected to be ready to play Friday after leaving with a hamstring cramp. At this point, there’s no reason to suspect that the Jays are understating the extent of the problem.
If Donaldson is fine, the Jays will have a much better chance of taking down Hamels. Game 2 starter Marcus Stroman has looked outstanding since returning from his torn ACL, and he should be able to hold down the Rangers’ offense better than Price did. He might not even have to face Adrian Beltre, who left Thursday’s game with a back problem.
The Rangers have yet to announce the rest of their rotation, though it sounds like Martin Perez is the favorite to get the ball opposite Marco Estrada in Game 3. It would then be either Colby Lewis, Derek Holland or Yovani Gallardo on three days’ rest in Game 4 (with the Jays starting knuckleballer R.A. Dickey). Lewis seems the more likely choice because of Holland’s inconsistency and the Jays’ dominance of left-handers. Those would both be winnable games for Toronto.
So, what it comes down to is beating Hamels. If the Jays head to Texas tied 1-1, they’re still the favorites to advance to the ALCS. If it’s 2-0 Rangers, three in a row is going to be a lot to ask.