TORONTO — Advantage Texas Rangers.
The underdog AL West champions, no strangers to being written off, spoiled the Blue Jays’ long-awaited return to the post-season Thursday, beating Toronto ace David Price en route to a 5-3 win.
Rangers manager Jeff Banister sends Cole Hamels, his marquee man, to the mound Friday afternoon to face Marcus Stroman in Game 2.
There’s a ways to go in the best-of-five series, but Texas is smiling while Canada has its fingers crossed.
“I care a ton,” said a disappointed Price. “I want to go out there and pitch well for my teammates and pitch well for this country and I didn’t do that today.”
A sellout crowd of 49,834, waving rally towels, lived and died with every pitch under the roof at the Rogers Centre, which last saw playoff action in 1993 when the Jays won a second straight World Series.
Russell Martin, the Jays’ Canadian catcher, called the atmosphere “awesome.”
“The fans were great. Good energy, from start to finish,” he said. “The only thing that wasn’t good was the result.”
Countless other Canadians took in the game from further afield as baseball took centre stage at the start of hockey season.
Rougned Odor and Robinson Chirinos homered and combined to score four of the Rangers’ runs as the bottom of the Texas order took its toll on Price, who was pitching on 11 days rest.
Price, who left after seven innings, gave up five earned runs on five hits with five strikeouts and two walks. He threw 90 pitches, 59 for strikes in taking the loss.
“That’s baseball. If you don’t like it, pitch better,” he said, quoting a slogan that hangs in his locker. “That’s something I always say. I definitely don’t like the result of what happened today but there’s a lot of things that were in my control today and I didn’t control those things.”
Price, who did not hit a batter as a Jay during the regular season, hit Odor twice in five innings — a Toronto playoff record. Both times the Texas second baseman came home to score.
Odor, a 21-year-old from Venezuela, is the second-youngest player to score three runs in a post-season game, according to ESPN Stats. Only Andruw Jones in the 1996 World Series was younger.
For all his regular-season exploits, Price has lost six straight in the playoffs since a win over Boston in 2008.
“It’s been about seven years so I want that monkey off my back,” Price said. “I expect to have better results out there on the field. I didn’t throw the ball the way that I’m capable of today and I’ll be ready to go whenever it’s my turn again.”
The Rangers never trailed, scoring twice in the third and fifth before adding a single run in the seventh. Toronto, limited to single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth, outhit Texas 6-5 but was only 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Jays manager John Gibbons called it one of those games.
“He (Price) didn’t give up many hits. The key ones were the two home runs, the two-runner by Chirinos and then Odor getting him later, that was really the difference in the game,” said Gibbons, his voice hoarse from a chest cold.
Texas only won two of six games against Toronto this season and Yovani Gallardo was on the mound for both. He started strongly Thursday, retiring the first nine Jays he faced before exiting after five innings with a 4-2 lead.
Rangers manager Jeff Bannister, whose Rangers seemed to come into the series with a chip on their shoulder given the attention on the Jays, pointed to his team’s resolve in the wake of the win
“We’ve got a very confident group of guys,” he said. “We’ve got a group of guys that they absolutely love playing together and they’ve been up against it all year long since spring training.
“So it’s not anything that we haven’t faced already about what is said on the outside about our ball club. We know that we’re a ball club that’s not a perfect ball club, but we’ve got a group of guys that play extremely well together. It’s a good team. They play very well together.”
Both teams lost key players during the game, with Jays’ MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and right-fielder Jose Bautista and Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre leaving early with injuries.
Toronto said Donaldson, dinged in the head by Odor’s knee in breaking up a double play, had cleared the concussion protocol and would be evaluated Friday.
“I think he got a little light-headed, (felt) something wasn’t right,” said Gibbons. “But he did pass the test so that’s a good sign.”
In sacrificing his body, Donaldson kept the fourth inning alive and set the stage for Toronto’s first run. He did it at some personal cost, losing his batting helmet and grimacing as he got up.
Bautista was diagnosed with a hamstring cramp and is not expected to miss any more action.
An MRI showed a lower back strain for Beltre, with no immediate word on his availability.
Bautista homered deep to left-centre off reliever Keone Kela to open the bottom of the sixth, cutting the Texas lead to 4-3 and lifting hopes. The Jays slugger paused to admire his first-ever post-season blast then trotted around the bases.
One hitter later, Edwin Encarnacion almost repeated the feat but his blast went just foul.
Odor’s line-drive homer to right in the seventh made it 5-3, shushing the crowd after Bautista’s homer.
Hard-throwing Sam Dyson got the save for Texas, hitting 98 m.p.h. in the ninth. Encarnacion opened with a single but the Jays came up short.
“The thing we’ve got going for us is I think we have been resilient all year … One thing I know about us is we always seem to respond,” said Gibbons.
“I still like our team,” said Martin. “We fought hard all year. I don’t know how many series that we lost the first game and still came out and won the series. It’s good to have that in the back of your mind.”
Added Bautista: “It’s one game. This could have been the fourth game of the series. It doesn’t make a difference. We’ve still got to go out there (Friday) and keep winning games and we have to go to Texas anyway and win there. So it doesn’t change anything about our approach.
The contest featured a matchup of the two highest-scoring teams in baseball since the all-star break (405 runs for Toronto, 381 for Texas). Toronto went 40-18 and Texas 38-22 since the start of August.
While Toronto (93-69) was making its return to the post-season after more than two decades, Texas (88-74) has made it four of the last six years. Still the Rangers’ ride this season is noteworthy, given they were last in the American League last year at 67-95 and they opened this season at 7-14.
“They counted us out in April but today we start the post-season,” the Rangers tweeted prior to Thursday’s game with their signature NeverEverQuit hashtag.
There was plenty of pre-game hoopla, with the “2015 AL East Champs” banner unfurled high in the rafters.
Cito Gaston, who managed the Jays to back-to-back World Series the last time Toronto was in the playoffs, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. And there was another tie to the glory days with the Canadian anthem — a recording of the late Michael Burgess from the 1992 World Series played as members of the military manned a giant Canadian flag in the outfield.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press