ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — There was Jose Bautista’s emphatic bat flip after his tiebreaking homer in the ALDS-clinching game last October, and then Rougned Odor’s punch in May that ignited a bench-clearing brawl the last time the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays played.
Now comes the rematch in another AL Division Series between teams clearly with some bad blood between them.
“I don’t think it’s fabricated,” Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar said Wednesday.
“We knew it was going to happen,” Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said of facing Toronto again. “That’s baseball.”
The year’s best-of-five ALDS starts Thursday in Texas, where on May 15 second baseman Odor punched Bautista. The scuffle began after Bautista, on base after getting hit in the ribs by a pitch, made a late and hard slide trying to break up a double play at the end of a contentious series.
“It’s unfortunate that it got out of hand last time, but it did, so it’s in the past and hopefully stays there,” Bautista said. “I’m not looking for revenge, I’m looking to win ball games. That’s entirely what my focus is on, and hopefully I get to keep it there.”
With all that recent history , close attention will be paid to every inside fastball, hard slide or any emotional outburst.
But these are also two teams with much more on the line than retribution after falling short of their World Series goal last year, and now with another chance.
“Games are too important. I wouldn’t expect anything,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “But nobody seems to want to let it go. ... Every time you turn on the TV, it’s a replay after replay after replay. But too much at stake. Two great ball clubs, two very competitive ball clubs, two emotional ball clubs. But in no way I would expect anything like that.”
After their 5-2 wild-card game victory over Baltimore on Tuesday night when Edwin Encarnacion hit a game-ending three-run homer in the 11th inning, the Blue Jays had a brief workout Wednesday at the Rangers’ ballpark. It was their first time there since that Sunday afternoon fight more than 4 1/2 months ago.
There could be some edgy moments when both teams are on the field with the postseason adrenaline flowing.
“I think it’s going to bring a lot more excitement to the games,” Andrus said. “It’s easy right now to say nothing’s going to happen or might happen. But when you’re out there and playing, and all the emotion any inning can bring, anything can happen.”
Major League Baseball disciplined 14 players and staff over the melee in May, with Odor (seven games), Bautista (one game) and Andrus (one game) the only players suspended.
Odor, who was playing ping-pong when the Rangers clubhouse was first open to reporters Wednesday, repeatedly said that he was focused on helping his team win the series. He said the Rangers would play like they have all year in winning an AL-high 95 games.
When asked how much what happened in May would be a distraction, Odor responded, “I think that’s over already. I don’t worry about that.”
Asked if that was the best punch he had ever thrown, he said, “I don’t worry about that.”
And, yes, Bautista has looked forward to being back in Texas, but not for the reasons many people would expect.
“In this situation, yeah,” Bautista said of the playoffs. “Other than that, I haven’t really given it much thought.”
FOR STARTERS: Game 1 matches a pair of All-Star pitchers, with left-hander Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32) going for the Rangers, and right-hander Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48) for the Blue Jays. Hamels, the 2008 World Series and NL Championship Series MVP with Philadelphia, didn’t face Toronto during the regular season. Estrada started twice against Texas, going six innings for no-decisions in both extra-inning games (1-1).
ON THE LINE: Toronto had to win its last two regular-season games against Boston just to make the playoffs, then had to beat Baltimore in the wild-card game to advance. Texas clinched the AL West title with eight games left in the regular season.
CHOO COMEBACK: Rangers RF Shin-Soo Choo has been on the disabled list four times this season and missed 39 games with a fractured left forearm before returning for the team’s final regular-season series last weekend. He also took part in a simulated game Tuesday, and worked out again Wednesday. “Choo is in a good place right now,” Texas manager Jeff Banister said. “I think he answered the question three games in a row, outfield, where his body is. He’s in shape. His legs are good.”
CLOSING TIME: Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna left the AL wild-card game with a sore shoulder. Gibbons said Osuna was feeling better Wednesday, but the manager wasn’t sure about the 21-year-old right-hander’s availability for ALDS Game 1. “We don’t think it’s a big deal but it’s probably wise to be a little cautious this time of year,” Gibbons said.