TORONTO – The simple words of advice Drew Hutchison picked up from minor-league pitching coach Vince Horsman when he first entered the Toronto Blue Jays system in 2010 still resonate with the young right-hander.
You do or you don’t. You will or you won’t.
“Probably some of the best advice I ever got,” says Hutchison. “When it comes down to it, that’s it.”
Lately for the Blue Jays starting rotation, there’s been a lot more do than don’t, plenty more will than won’t, a buoying trend that continued Wednesday night behind yet another gem from Mark Buehrle, who outduelled Cliff Lee until a nine-run seventh broke open a 10-0 rout of the Philadelphia Phillies.
The veteran left-hander, now 6-1 with a 1.91 ERA after seven shutout innings, is the embodiment of Horsman’s cut-to-the-chase mantra, which forgoes flowery navel-gazing in favour of the base bottom-line assessments that are at the core of elite competition. Buehrle’s no futzing around approach in which he gets the sign, throws the ball quickly and lets the defence do the rest should be cloned and genetically engineered into other pitchers.
Until that happens, the best thing others can do is follow Buehrle’s lead, and whether literally or figuratively, that’s what seems to be happening right now for the Blue Jays.
“He does everything right,” says manager John Gibbons. “He’s an old throwback guy, he’s a workman, he goes out there, never any excuses, he just lays it out there and pitches to win. Guys see that, they feed off that. There are a lot of prima donnas in this business, but he’s not one of them, so naturally guys gravitate to him to see what he does. Maybe it affects them. Hopefully it affects them.”
If not for a trio of bullpen meltdowns last week, the Blue Jays (17-17) very easily could have returned home from their eight-game road trip 7-1 instead of 4-4, and good starting pitching combined with an offence that can be one baseball’s best are driving the current stretch.
Wednesday’s victory was a prime example. Buehrle nursed an early 1-0 lead through to the seventh, when home runs by Erik Kratz, Juan Francisco and Edwin Encarnacion turned a nail-biter into a laugher.
“We all know what this offence can do once they get on a roll,” says Buehrle. “If they keep this up, I think our pitching will be better than what we’ve showed, and if we can get everything together and get on a roll I think we’ll be all right.”
Now, the rotation could still stand to get a bit deeper into games on a more regular basis, but perhaps that’s coming. And two important points of progress in the past few days with Hutchison and J.A. Happ bode well in that regard.
Hutchison has gone at least six innings in four of his past five starts, notably pitching seven frames two outings ago and eight on Tuesday. The second start, in particular, was an important growth moment as Hutchison recovered from surrendering a game-tying grand slam to Cody Asche in the sixth inning, but recovered to retire the next seven batters he faced.
The Blue Jays eventually won in 10 innings.
“I was able to turn the page,” says Hutchison. “It does you no good to be mad about what just happened. You can only focus on what comes next and that’s something I thought I did well, was after the grand slam stay out there and give us two more good innings.”
Manager John Gibbons says part of the reason he allowed Hutchison to continue was some long-term thinking that “if he goes in and shuts them down the way he did, that can go a long, long way.”
A test of that comes Sunday when he starts against the Los Angeles Angels, but noteworthy is that Hutchison feels “the way I’ve been throwing the ball, I should be executing better than I am. It’s just a matter of performing.”
Things are similar and different for Happ, who was thrown back into the rotation by Brandon Morrow’s hand injury after a long period of inactivity in the bullpen.
The left-hander threw five shutout innings Monday despite walking four, and given he hadn’t pitched since April 23 prior to that, it’s reasonable to think he can be better his next time out.
“I think everything needs fine-tuning,” Happ says. “Rarely are you super-happy with the way everything goes. I would say under the circumstances, I feel pretty good about it. It’s about taking all those things and throwing it where you want it 85 per cent of the time instead of 65 per cent of the time, and that makes a huge difference.”
There’s no short-cut to that point, as “repetition is going to be a huge thing, just trying to get comfortable,” adds Happ. “I don’t know when that point will be, it may take just a little while. As far as pitch count, we’re going to hopefully jump up (from 80) and I don’t see that really being an issue.”
A season-high four-game win streak in the wake of the back-to-back bullpen implosions in Pittsburgh has calmed the issues before the Blue Jays as a whole, and with Adam Lind and Casey Janssen on the verge of returning, things are suddenly looking up.
More do, more will, plus a continued correction in the bullpen and they may really be on to something.