The rivalry forged in a flash across a long weekend as July flipped to August, as the Royals turned their eyes toward October, as the Blue Jays transformed into a sudden contender. For four days and nights in Toronto, the two clubs bludgeoned one another, culminating in hit batsmen, hurt feelings and hurled insults.
The most cutting emerged from the mouth of Edinson Volquez, the starter on that last day, Aug. 2. He referred to Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson, who objected to Volquez hitting him with a pitch and still throwing inside later, as “a little baby.” Donaldson huffed off the jab, as he and his teammates proceeded to batter their division en route to their first playoff berth since 1993.
The past serves as prologue for the American League Championship Series. These two teams will clash again, starting on Friday evening at Kauffman Stadium. Volquez will start in Game 1 against fellow right-hander Marco Estrada. The mandate to Volquez will be the same as it was in August: Throw inside, without fear of repercussions.
“I’m not a mind reader, I’m not a fortune teller, I don’t know if it’s going to be an issue,” manager Ned Yost said before his team’s workout. “We’ll pitch inside aggressively. That’s a power-laden club over there. We’re going to formulate a really good game plan and try to go out and execute.”
On paper, the matchup looks explosive. The Royals boast a trio of hard-throwing right-handed pitchers in Volquez, Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto, who will start the first three games in that order. Toronto will counter with a hulking collection of right-handed hitters who form the game’s most daunting lineup.
The Blue Jays do not represent a carbon copy of the Royals, but the two teams do resemble one another. Toronto ended the longest postseason drought in North American sports a year after the Royals sloughed off that unfortunate distinction. The Blue Jays survived a tumultuous American League Division Series, reeling off three consecutive victories against Texas to climb out of an 0-2 hole.
In Game 5 on Wednesday, Toronto presented another quality they share with the Royals — a gift for flair. Jose Bautista capped a raucous seventh inning with an iconic bat flip, hurling his lumber skyward toward the Texas dugout. The benches soon cleared, as they so often do in these scenarios, players lamented.
“It looks unprofessional, but it doesn’t seem like it bothers the fans all that much,” reliever Ryan Madson said. “And that’s all that really matters. If the fans continue to like the game the way it is, then why change it?”
He added, “I think people need to stop being so upset about it when it happens, because every team is doing it.”
Madson also played a role in the dustup with Donaldson on Aug. 2. Both he and Volquez hit batters during that game. Volquez smoked Donaldson with a 94-mph fastball in the first inning. Donaldson had homered twice and hit a walkoff single in the first three games.
In the third inning, Volquez threw a change-up that veered up and in, which caused Donaldson’s head to snap back. Donaldson glared toward Volquez. Neither Donaldson nor Bautista made themselves available when the Blue Jays opened their clubhouse to reporters on Thursday.
“We weren’t throwing at anybody,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “I mean, Volquez missed up and in with a change-up and they didn’t take to kindly to that. But that was a change-up that got away. If we’re going to go up and in, we’re not going to go up and in with a change-up.”
But make no mistake: The Royals will throw high and inside this series. The club considers it a vital part of their strategy against the Blue Jays, who feature a ferocious assemblage of right-handed power.
Donaldson will likely be the American League’s MVP after swatting 41 homers. Bautista hit 40 and Edwin Encarnacion hit 39. The Blue Jays led the majors in homers, runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
During that weekend at Rogers Centre, the Royals fretted about the easy swings taken by Blue Jays hitters, who crowd the plate and extend their arms to reach across for outside pitches. Kansas City decided they must reclaim that territory.
“It’s important against anybody, but especially against these guys,” Eiland said. “Because these guys, they’re right on top of the plate. If you don’t pitch in, make them aware in for effect and for strikes, they’re going to get to good pitches away.”
So in that seventh inning on Aug. 2, Madson accidentally hit shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the wrist with a fastball. Next Madson buzzed Donaldson with a 2-2, 96-mph fastball. Again Donaldson’s head snapped back. This time he stomped around the mound, shouting at the umpire and pointing at his own head.
The tantrum elicited derision from the Royals at the time. It also merited retribution in the eyes of the umpires. Blue Jays reliever Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar in the top of the next inning and received an ejection. Both benches cleared, and Volquez had to be restrained.
Volquez had little interest in stoking the fire on Thursday. He called Donaldson only “a great hitter.”
“It’s over,” Volquez said. “We’ve got to move forward.”
Two months later, neither side elected to trade many verbal salvos. But the players acknowledged the possibility of a similar scene.
“As I stand here, do I expect people to get hit? Yeah, probably,” Toronto outfielder Kevin Pillar said. “Because they’ve got an aggressive pitching staff that likes to throw in. We’ve got guys that like to throw in as well. But I can’t imagine anyone trying to hurt anyone or giving free base-runners. It’s too important of a series.”