TORONTO — In this, his second go-round as a starting pitcher in 2017, Joe Biagini has fallen into a bit of a pattern.
The Toronto Blue Jays right-hander has been alternating between strong starts and ineffective ones. It began with his final minor-league tune-up before rejoining Toronto’s rotation this August. Biagini was terrific that day, throwing seven strong innings of two-run ball for the Buffalo Bisons.
But in his next outing — Biagini’s first at the major-league level in nearly a month — he didn’t get out of the fourth inning, allowing five runs on nine hits while walking three. The outing after that? Biagini was masterful, throwing seven scoreless while striking out 10.
Another poor outing followed against Boston on Sept. 6, with Biagini lasting only 3.1 innings and coughing up five runs. And Tuesday night, in holding the Baltimore Orioles to two runs on six hits over eight strong innings in a 3-2 Blue Jays victory, Biagini provided the requisite strong start to continue the trend.
Biagini’s task now is finding consistency — eliminating those bad outings in between his good ones, or at least limiting the carnage within them and pitching deeper into those ballgames. That’s what will help the 27-year-old compete successfully for a job in Toronto’s 2018 rotation, as the Blue Jays hope he will.
“It’s been a frustrating season for me — because I’ve been a lot less consistent that I would have liked to be,” Biagini said. “I think for me, finding that consistency, like I’ve been talking about the last bunch of weeks, is really the name of the game.”
The flip flopping of good starts and bad illustrates why the Blue Jays have stretched Biagini out for the second time this season. He’s demonstrated an ability to pitch incredibly well as a starter, efficiently attacking the zone with four-seamers and cutters, before putting hitters away with curveballs and change-ups.
But the poorer half of the equation illustrates why there is still some debate among Blue Jays brass as to where Biagini best fits — in the rotation or the bullpen. During his rougher starts, Biagini has laboured on the mound, running his pitch count up early in games and slowing to a paint-drying pace between pitches, which has an adverse effect on the defenders behind him.
Of course, Biagini’s performance Tuesday night was anything but that. He needed only 26 pitches to get his first nine outs and cruised through the sixth inning without allowing a baserunner to touch second. In four of those first six innings, he threw less than 10 pitches.
“I think the challenge was, in the first couple innings, to get the ball down and reverse the cycle that was starting to happen that I allowed to happen in the previous start,” Biagini said. “I think that’s just another part of learning how to be a starting pitcher at this level. There’s things that I have to remember that have made me successful in the past.”
Biagini relied heavily on his fastball (he threw it 73 per cent of the time), partly because he was locating it so well in the zone and partly because it was all he needed. The Orioles took an aggressive approach against Biagini, swinging early and often. That led to hitters putting the first pitch of an at-bat in play seven times, which meant Biagini rarely got deep into counts, where he’d normally utilize his secondary stuff.
“He’s got a good fastball,” Biagini’s catcher, Luke Maile, said. “When you’re calling a game you kind of read the swings. And, overall, the swings weren’t as good as they have been off of a lot of guys lately.
“He doesn’t work particularly fast. So, I think that when you can get guys to put the ball in play the first couple pitches of an at-bat it kind of changes the dynamic and the momentum.”
Biagini didn’t allow any damage until his seventh inning, when Trey Mancini drove a one-out double into the left field corner. After striking out Chris Davis, Biagini came within a strike of stranding the runner, but could only watch as a weak Mark Trumbo flare off the end of the bat fell into shallow centre field, allowing Mancini to jog home.
That run allowed was cruel. But Biagini’s next was not, as Tim Beckham turned on a 94-m.p.h. fastball on the inner edge of the plate and hit it over the left-field wall for an eighth-inning, go-ahead solo shot.
“I was frustrated with a couple of things in those last two innings,” Biagini said. “But the way the ball bounces sometimes, and the way the ball bounces really hard off of someone’s bat sometimes, is just part of the whole experience.”
But that was the worst harm he’d allow. Biagini was stellar Tuesday, limiting the Orioles to an average exit velocity of 77.8 m.p.h. on the 28 balls they put in play. That tells you Biagini was moving the ball off the sweet spot of bats, and utilizing the defence behind him to turn weak contact into outs.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays offence had trouble getting anything going in support of Biagini, as they struggled to break through against Orioles starter Dylan Bundy. Toronto’s lone run off Bundy came in the third inning, when Maile’s leadoff single came around to score on a ringing Justin Smoak double to deep right field.
Otherwise, nothing. The Blue Jays did make some very hard contact against Bundy their second time through the order, but came away with little to show for it as Richard Urena, Josh Donaldson, Kendrys Morales and Kevin Pillar all watched fly balls with exit velocities of 96 m.p.h. or more fall into gloves on the warning track.
But the Blue Jays were able to break through in the ninth against Orioles closer Zach Britton, as Pillar led off with a walk before moving to third on a Teoscar Hernandez single and scoring on a rocketed Maile ground ball that Orioles third baseman Manny Machado could only knock down.
That brought up Urena, who scorched a game-winning single into centre field and was mobbed by teammates in one of the more raucous celebrations Rogers Centre has seen in 2017.
“I know he’s a closer, throws hard,” Urena said of facing Britton for the first time. “Any time I go out there, I just try to look for a fastball up in the zone. And he gave me one so I put a good swing on it.”
Of course, winning and losing doesn’t matter much for the Blue Jays at this point in the season. These final three weeks are about player assessment more than anything, and Biagini as a starting pitcher is high on that list.
So, now that he’s got Tuesday’s strong start under his belt, what happens next time? Biagini starts this Sunday in Minnesota. That’s when we’ll find out if he can break the pattern.
“And I think that’s the fun of it. As long as you stay positive and don’t panic in those ruts, in those times where you’re grinding through and trying to figure out what exactly is the thing that’s going to put you over the top,” Biagini said. “And for me to get the chance to do that in an environment like this, on a really good team like this, in the big leagues, fighting for wins and doing all that good stuff — I’m really grateful to get the chance to do that.
“This team sees something in there with me. And I’m really trying to be as grateful as I can for the opportunity to just find that rhythm and tap into what’s in there. And try to bring it out as consistently as possible and learn from things.”