The fastball was a missile, heat-seeking and explosive, flung 98 miles per hour toward the inside corner. The swing was a detonation, a baseball being blasted in the other direction at nearly 107 mph.
In the bottom of the sixth on Wednesday night at the Rogers Centre, Toronto’s Troy Tulowitzki cleared the bases with a three-run double into the left-center gap off Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera. The line-drive lifted the Blue Jays to a 7-1 victory in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series and shifted the series back to Kansas City for Game 6 on Friday night. It also had to prompt the following thought in the Royals dugout:
If this is the injured, watered-down version of Tulowitzki, the former All-Star shortstop, Kansas City has to be praying it never sees the fully healthy model. Battling the linger effects of a fractured shoulder blade — suffered in early September — Tulowitzki is batting .368 (seven for 19) with two doubles and a homer in the ALCS.
“I’m good enough to go,” Tulowitzki said Wednesday, in the moments after Game 5. “I’ve said that all along. I wouldn’t be out there if I wasn’t.”
As the series shifts back to Kansas City, with the Royals still leading 3-2, the emergence of Tulowitzki could add another layer of intrigue to the ongoing battle between the Royals’ deep pitching staff and the Blue Jays’ vaunted offense. In the series’ first five games, the Royals appeared loathe to challenge Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays’ most dangerous offensive weapons. Bautista has walked seven times, while Donaldson has drawn three walks and was hit by a pitch during the Blue Jays’ decisive rally on Wednesday.
Tulowitzki, batting sixth in the lineup, has taken advantage of the base-runners in front of him, feasting on Kansas City pitching during three games in Toronto. Tulowitzki has a team-high seven RBIs in the series, and six of those came in Blue Jays victories in Games 3 and 5.
“He’s arguably the best shortstop in the game,” Bautista said. “So we expect nothing different from him but positive contributions.”
That may be true. But in the days before his breakout, Tulowitzki appeared a shell of his best self. Acquired before the trade deadline from the Colorado Rockies, Tulowitzki came to Toronto to bolster an already potent lineup, a former MVP candidate who has battled constant injuries during his career. This time, the shoulder injury appeared to sap his power and weaken his dangerous bat. After going hitless with two strikeouts during Game 1 of the ALCS, Tulowitzki was just two for 25 in this postseason.
“I know it still bothers him,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said last week of the injury. “But he’s good enough to play, and he wants to play, and he’s gutting it out this time of year. I tip my hat to him.
On Friday night, Royals starter Yordano Ventura will be next in line to face the Blue Jays’ bats and a hot Tulowitzki. Speaking on Thursday afternoon, Ventura said he was more concerned about his own stuff — his own execution — than the challenge that awaited him. But he will likely pay special attention to Tulowitzki. In Game 2, Tulowitzki nicked Ventura for two hits in three at-bats, including an RBI double in the top of the sixth. The moment — and the games that followed — appeared to lift Tulo from his slump. For the moment, with the season on the line, he will try to maintain the form.
“It’s a tough game,” Tulowitzki said. “Sometimes you go through some rough patches, sometimes you swing the bat well. Lately, I’ve been putting better swings.”