The Blue Jays opened the second half of the season the same way they ended the first — with a win over the Kansas City Royals — and they did it with another very good outing from a starting pitcher.
The running theme through all these columns the last three weeks and really, through any sort of talk about the Blue Jays at all since “The Week From Hell” is the state of the rotation; the fact that the Jays lost three starting pitchers to long-term injury in the space of just four games and how much of an effect that is going to have on the rest of their season.
Amazingly, though, the Blue Jays have a better record since the third of those four starters went down (11-8) than they had beforehand (31-32) and they just finished a complete turn through the rotation in which they got quality starts from four of their current five starters — everyone but Ricky Romero.
Carlos Villanueva had the best start of the bunch, throwing six innings of four-hit shutout Wednesday night. He didn’t walk a man, struck out seven and needed just 85 pitches to hand it over to the trio of Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver and Casey Janssen, who closed it out.
When you look at the three new additions to the rotation, Villaneuva could very well be the one in whose hands the fate of the Blue Jays rests over the final 80 games. Aaron Laffey and Brett Cecil, a pair of southpaws who have to rely on command, control and changing speeds, could be reasonable bottom-of-the-rotation starters. The jury is still out on both of them, with Laffey having had two terrific starts and Cecil having had very good results three times out of four, but you could do a lot worse for your fourth and fifth starters, and several teams in the big leagues do.
I don’t know how comfortable I would be with the notion that Laffey or Cecil had to be the Blue Jays’ third-best pitcher behind Ricky Romero and Henderson Alvarez — even if it’s just for the next month and a bit until Brandon Morrow returns from his oblique injury. But Villanueva might be a very good fit to bridge that gap and keep the Blue Jays’ collective heads above water until that happens.
Villanueva is one of those guys they call a “pitcher’s pitcher”. He prefers to start (they all do), but all he really wants is the ball. He’ll take it in any situation and be basically the same guy, and he seems to have rather a rubber arm, too. Twice already this season Villanueva has thrown over 60 pitches in a relief appearance without having been stretched out at all, and in his first start of the season five days ago, he threw 92 pitches over five innings of work. This time around, he was far more efficient, which augurs well. Villanueva is now done until the all-star break, after which I’m assuming the five starters will be re-ordered.
The man known fondly as “Los Del V” has stepped into the breach before, moving into the Blue Jays’ rotation in late May of last season. He wound up having to go on the disabled list after 12 starts with elbow problems, but over the first nine, he was very good, posting an ERA of 3.67 and a WHIP of 1.204, holding opponents to a .249/.298/.349 mark. He hit the wall after nine starts, but may have been trying to pitch through the injury for a bit.
If Villanueva can be anywhere near as good over the next month as he was for a month and a half last year — and he’s off to a wonderful start — then he’ll be more than good enough to hold things down with the Blue Jays’ offence backing him.
Now, this entire theory is predicated on Ricky Romero returning to form and Henderson Alvarez being more like the guy who pitched his last two starts as opposed to the six previous, but again, with the Blue Jays’ bats they don’t need great starting pitching, just good enough — and they need guys who are going to give them six or seven innings. With Villanueva around to bridge the gap between the top of the rotation and the bottom, and Alex Anthopoulos apparently on the lookout for “this year” help, the Jays might just be able to stick around in this thing a while longer after all.