After striking out 10 in five innings of one-run ball for double-A New Hampshire on Sunday night, looking more like his former self than the pitcher who struggled earlier this year, Alek Manoah was asked about his next steps. The way he answered the question is, in part, why the Toronto Blue Jays feel confident
After striking out 10 in five innings of one-run ball for double-A New Hampshire on Sunday night, looking more like his former self than the pitcher who struggled earlier this year, Alek Manoah was asked about his next steps.
The way he answered the question is, in part, why the Toronto Blue Jays feel confident in starting him Friday night against the Detroit Tigers.
“For me it’s everything I’ve learned through this process and taking it with me, that’s the biggest thing,” Manoah said outside the Fisher Cats clubhouse. “Being able to take everything and not let it happen again and understand there are going to be bad days and there are going to be great days, but the work doesn’t stop.”
Along those lines, the Blue Jays are leaning on the work more than the results in making the intriguing call to bring him back. They could easily have given him one more outing somewhere in the minors, saying they wanted to see him further cement his progress, and recalled him after the all-star break. Trevor Richards and Bowden Francis could have teamed up once more.
But all along the Blue Jays said they’d base their decisions on Manoah’s progression, not on a pre-determined timeline, and they brushed off the troubling stat line from that 11-run, 2.2-inning blip in the Florida Complex League to see that he’d made actual gains.
Validation for that came not in the results Sunday in double-A against Boston Red Sox affiliate Portland, but in the way Manoah pitched, fighting through persistent rain to beat hitters with a fastball that sat around 94 m.p.h. and topped out at 95, ripping off some quality sliders despite a slick baseball.
“It was kind of what we were looking to see unfold in a competitive environment,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “Yeah, the results were great, but it was never really about results, you know? It was about him just sticking to the process of what we laid out together with him involved in it. And I think it’s a good time to get him back and get him in this environment around these guys. But it wasn’t, ‘Oh, you struck out 10, not nine, so you’re back’ or ‘You threw your last pitch this hard, so you’re back.’ It’s just a collective gathering of everything that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of weeks.”
The Tigers will test that Friday and while on paper they may appear to be a soft landing — a right-handed heavy, light-hitting lineup — Manoah’s experience so far this season is a reminder that nothing is easy or to be taken for granted in the big leagues. There’s always some leap of faith involved when trusting that process will translate into results and that’s where the Blue Jays are at here.
“With everything that he’s been working on mechanically, strike-throwing, things like that, we’ve been saying all along there’s been a pretty good checklist of things that we wanted to see,” explained Schneider. “Minor tweak mechanically. We like what we saw in terms of comparing it to last year to now, as opposed to the beginning of this year. And he’s in the zone. Velo was holding, last pitch was 95 in his outing. It’s a dude that can obviously help us.”
And the Blue Jays can certainly use the pick-me-up a renewed Manoah can provide, not to mention the relief he gives a starting rotation that deserves kudos for helping to minimize the impact of his absence.
Due to a lack of viable alternatives in triple-A, the Blue Jays went with a four-man staff for a month, with three bullpen games covering when a fifth starter was essential. Kevin Gausman, who has pitched on regular rest five times in his past six outings and seven of his last nine, bore the brunt of it and is being pushed back to Saturday to get him an extra day.
Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi all made similar sacrifices, surrendering extra days of rest during rare off-days to help make up for the organization’s lack of starter depth.
“Yeah, it was rough but at the same time it’s what we had to do,” said Berrios. “That’s our work. We were trying to help our team, trying to figure out and find a way to go out there and do our best to try and win the ballgame. Thank God we passed through that process and everyone was healthy and strong.”
Added Bassitt: “It affected all of us, no doubt. Couldn’t work out the way I wanted to, couldn’t throw bullpens the way I wanted to, but at the end of the day, we just got it done. We knew the situation we were in, we had do what was best for Alek, and I think he’s going to come back and be great for us. But I mean, it was just getting through it. Heck, organizations are going to six-man rotations for a reason, and we’re going to a four-man rotation. No one’s going to a four-man rotation unless you have to.”
That last part can’t be overstated and had someone else suffered an injury, the Blue Jays would have been completely exposed. Hyun Jin Ryu’s continued buildup – he allowed one run in three innings with five strikeouts while sitting 87-88 with his fastball – bodes well for a return in weeks rather than months, and he may be needed to mitigate the toll of the past month.
“They were unbelievably consistent for the most part,” Schneider said of the other four starters. “We’ve talked about it, how that can catch up over time and we’re in July. So I think the work that they did, you can’t really speak highly enough of them, what they did performance-wise and what they did on regular rest. It’s easy to bake in an extra day’s rest when you’re a five-man or I know teams have a six-man. It’s very admirable what they did, how they did it, how they kind of pulled together and said, OK, we’re going to make sure we’re giving ourselves a chance to win every night.”
Now Manoah is tagging back in, aiming to do the same.
“It’s great. I knew he was going to be back with us. We still believed in him, I always said he still had the ability, the pitches and everything. He’s just stepped back, took a little breath and be him, be the 2022 Alek Manoah,” said Berrios. “His presence, he brings a lot of energy to his teammates, to me. We were missing him so much.”