TORONTO — On Friday afternoon, John Farrell was asked how he would set up his starting rotation for a five-game playoff series if his team was to start one right now.
“Left, right, left, left, right,” was the clever reply from the Toronto Blue Jays manager.
While there might be some debate over the identity of the first lefty given Ricky Romero’s struggles this season, there’s little doubt the first righty would be Carlos Villanueva, the invaluable swingman who improved to 6-0 this season with five solid innings in an 8-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
Things started ominously for Villanueva as Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hit back-to-back solo shots off him in the first inning, but he didn’t allow another run through the next four frames, grinding through one of the more imposing lineups in the American League without his best stuff.
“One of my main goals as a starter is when I go out there that (the position players) think they can win and they believe they can win,” said Villanueva. “I’ve been in the bullpen a lot … let’s go back when I was with the Brewers, there are certain pitchers that went out there that we were like, ‘Oh man, you’ve got to get ready early because you never know what he’s going to give us.’ I don’t want to be that type of pitcher.
“Every time I go out there, even when I don’t have my best stuff and I give up two or three runs, they know I’m going to stop it right there. I take pride in that.”
So far it certainly looks like the Blue Jays believe when Villanueva is out there, as they’ve won all five of his starts this season, the right-hander picking up the victory in each of the last four outings. In 28.1 innings as a starter, he’s allowed only eight earned runs, providing the rotation with a needed boost amid a plethora of injuries and underperformance.
Despite not being overpowering, his stuff clearly plays.
“The definition of a pitcher, using all his pitches in different sequences,” was how Farrell described him. “He’s a got a very keen idea of himself, on reading swings. He disrupts hitters’ timing. He’s not going to wow you with the radar gun, as we’ve seen. He’s confident in that.”
THE BIG PICTURE: The Blue Jays (50-49) won for the fifth time in seven games before a crowd of 33,962, once again beating a team ahead of them in the wild-card standings. The Tigers (53-47) lost for the third time in four outings.
MILESTONE MOMENTS: Anthony Gose picked up the first RBI of his career with a single through first baseman Prince Fielder in the four-run fourth, and promptly added the first stolen base of his career shortly after by easily swiping second.
THE BATS: Jeff Mathis typically gets most of his credit for his work behind the plate but his performance at the dish has been beyond expectations so far.
His double in the fourth — played poorly by left-fielder Quintin Berry — was the big blow off Rick Porcello (7-6), scoring three runs, putting the Blue Jays up 4-2 and giving his team a control of the game it wouldn’t relinquish. Mathis scored soon after on Gose’s base hit to make it 5-2.
“We acquired him as a top-notch defender,” said Farrell. “But when we got him in spring training, we felt there was no reason why he couldn’t be more of an offensive player.”
The Blue Jays suggested he make some adjustments to his stance in the spring and he’s embraced them but has lacked the opportunity to consistently employ them. He’ll get that chance during J.P. Arencibia’s absence with a broken right hand.
“Any time you can get in there and get in rhythm that helps,” said Mathis. “You’re seeing pitches and starting to work counts better. I’m looking forward to this run and getting to play a little bit more.”
Back-to-back triples by 22-year-old Brett Lawrie and 45-year-old Omar Vizquel made it 6-2 in the seventh while Travis Snider continued to punish baseballs with a two-run shot in the eighth that made it 8-3, costing Casey Janssen a save opportunity but giving the Blue Jays ample cushion for the win.
“The difference was he had to slide and I was standing up,” Vizquel said of the difference between the triples by him and Lawrie. “Veteran move.”
Edwin Encarnacion’s RBI single in the first halved Detroit’s lead and plated a double by Vizquel, his first extra-base hit of the year.
THE ARMS: Though Villanueva was effective in his five innings, that still left four frames for the bullpen that were capably worked by rookie Aaron Loup, Brandon Lyon, Darren Oliver and Janssen.
Loup continues to impress, allowing a hit in an otherwise clean 1.1 innings, Lyon allowed an infield single before striking out his next two batters, Oliver allowed a run on Fielder’s bouncer up the middle in the eighth — Cabrera just beat Colby Rasmus’s strong throw at the plate — and Janssen mopped up the ninth for the second straight day in a non-save situation.
“He was hot, the two additional runs were (scored) in a matter of four pitches, so to get somebody else up and if a couple guys get on (in the ninth Janssen) is going to get hot again, and we’re right in the middle of the order with Cabrera and Fielder coming,” explained Farrell. “It’s not a typical game that we’d like to bring him in, but under those circumstances we wanted to nail this one down.”
NOT TRADED: Shortstop Yunel Escobar and DH Adam Lind were both late scratches from the game, prompting instant speculation they had been traded.
They weren’t. Both missed the game with lower back tightness.
Lind’s case, “caught us by surprise a little bit,” said Farrell, “he experienced some tightness in the mid-back, not in the same area which he suffered a year ago. During batting practice it continued to tighten up on him and clearly wasn’t able to go tonight.”
As for Escobar, “after his early work, he said he was ready to go. Took ground balls, took some swings, there were no issues, then he took BP and started to feel some soreness again,” explained Farrell. “He’s basically day-to-day.”