Joe Biagini shows intriguing potential as a starter

Joe Biagini and the bullpen held the Rays to just one run on three hits as the Jays win their first road series with 2-1 win.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When you think about it, the Toronto Blue Jays asked a lot of Joe Biagini Sunday. Two months after they decided to stop experimenting with Biagini as a starter, they gave him all of two days notice and asked him to start a big-league game for the first time in his career.

Sure, Biagini was stretched out a little in spring training, but that was months ago. Leading up to the start, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said he’d be thrilled if he could get four innings from the former Rule 5 pick. Given the state of the Blue Jays’ rotation, they had to take what they could get.

Biagini responded with an outing that did more than keep the Blue Jays in a game they would eventually win 2-1. By limiting the Tampa Bay Rays to one unearned run in four innings, he showed enough potential to earn another turn in the Blue Jays’ rotation.

“You know what, I thought he was dominating,” Gibbons said.

Five days from now the Blue Jays will call on Biagini for his second MLB start. When he takes the ball against the Seattle Mariners in Toronto, he’ll have plenty to build on.

Biagini allowed just two hits Sunday, striking out four on a day he mixed in three off-speed pitches to complement a fastball that touched 95 mph. The lone run he allowed scored because Devon Travis mishandled a routine Kevin Kiermaier ground ball in the third inning. Otherwise, Biagini didn’t let anyone get past first base.

“He’s got stuff to start in the big-leagues,” pitching coach Pete Walker said before the outing. “We know that.”

Biagini spoke at length with Walker and Toronto’s starters leading up to his start, and those conversations helped him refine his approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between the rotation and the bullpen, he resolved to stick to what works and treat the start like an extended relief appearance.

“It was important for me to not overthink it” Biagini said. “Take it one inning at a time — or two innings at a time, if you can juggle that.”

Biagini has a 58.3 per cent ground ball rate as a reliever this year, and he carried that over against the Rays, generating six ground ball outs. “It’s fun to play behind guys like him that attack the strike zone, get ahead of hitters and give you a lot of work on the infield,” third baseman Darwin Barney said.

Even so, the Blue Jays had to ask a lot of their relievers Sunday. The bullpen delivered as Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera, Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna combined for five one-hit innings.

“The team needs these wins right now, and I’m proud of how our bullpen did today, keeping it close,” Biagini said.

Thanks to the bullpen, the Blue Jays were able to keep pace with Rays starter Alex Cobb, who delivered eight efficient innings of his own.

While the Blue Jays had trouble hitting Cobb, they managed enough offence to win their second series of the season before heading home to Toronto. Kevin Pillar led off the sixth inning with his second hit of the afternoon, a double, and Russell Martin singled him home.

Two innings later, Barney hit a ball into the left field seats for his first home run of the season. Though Barney’s a glove-first player, the Blue Jays will welcome all of the unexpected offence they can get, especially while infielders Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki remain sidelined.

The Blue Jays’ rotation remains a work in progress, even after a win against the Rays. A spot starter, perhaps Mike Bolsinger, will join the team Tuesday, and Aaron Sanchez could return from the disabled list Sunday May 14.

But with J.A. Happ still sidelined, there’s at least one spot available in the rotation, and Biagini’s effort Sunday earned him a continued look in that role.

“To start is kind of the goal that I’ve had for myself whether I get the opportunity or not down the road,” Biagini said. “I’m not going to complain. I get to play in the major-leagues, so that’s pretty cool.”