CHICAGO – The Toronto Blue Jays began the day with a pressing need for runs and no starting pitcher for Saturday.
A 10-run outburst eased some of the concern about the offence and led to a 10-2 win against the Chicago White Sox, but the Blue Jays’ starting rotation looks even more vulnerable because a promising Aaron Sanchez start ended in the fourth inning due to a blister on his right middle finger.
The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time considering the Blue Jays were already down to four starters. Complicating matters, they’re in the midst of a 16-day stretch with no days off.
Clayton Richard had been penciled in for Saturday, but needs at least one rehab start, so he’ll head to triple-A Buffalo instead. A bullpen day was under consideration, but won’t be easy considering Toronto’s relievers had to provide six innings Friday.
So what happens now? How about a lefty knuckleballer? Ryan Feierabend will likely start for the Blue Jays Saturday, according to manager Charlie Montoyo. That’ll make for an interesting afternoon, particularly for catcher Luke Maile who will catch Feierabend for the first time.
After first reaching the majors as a conventional pitcher, the 33-year-old signed in Korea and started using a knuckleball regularly. It worked, leading to a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays over the winter, and he has since posted a 2.70 ERA in three starts at triple-A.
Adding Feierabend to the roster will require corresponding roster moves, but Montoyo and Sanchez both expressed optimism the blister won’t necessitate a stint on the injured list.
“I’m not really thinking I’m going to miss time,” Sanchez said. “If I do I’m not going to be stubborn. I’d rather miss one instead of another half of a year. I’ll be all right.”
On three occasions this year, cold weather has caused Sanchez’s surgically repaired index finger to stiffen up (the other starts took place in Boston and Minneapolis). On Friday, he warmed his hand up on a dugout heater in the hopes of loosening it, but that led to a blister.
The Blue Jays will monitor the finger in the coming days, but his history of finger issues means there’s cause for some concern here. The right-hander spent 211 days on the injured list with various finger injuries over the last two seasons, though he has been able to make all of his starts so far this season on his way to a 3.88 ERA.
“I’m finally starting to feel like myself,” Sanchez said. “It’s unfortunate that it is what it is. Hopefully the cold weather’s gone and I don’t have to deal with this again.”
Rotation health has been a problem all year for the Blue Jays, who now have Richard, Ryan Borucki, Clay Buchholz and Matt Shoemaker on the injured list. As a result, rookie Trent Thornton and journeyman Edwin Jackson have more job security than anyone would have anticipated entering the season.
At least the Blue Jays found some answers at the plate. They were two-hit Thursday, but that hardly even seems remarkable anymore. Entering play Friday, they ranked last in the American League in batting average (.216), on-base percentage (.285) and slugging percentage (.356). Still, Montoyo predicted better results were ahead.
“The hitters we’ve got are better than what they’re hitting,” he said before the game. “That’s a fact. The numbers are there. It’s going to turn around. When that’s going to happen, I don’t know.”
A few hours after Montoyo made those comments he had watched the Blue Jays tie their season-high in runs scored thanks to homers from Justin Smoak, Danny Jansen and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
“It was fun to watch,” Montoyo said afterwards. “Everybody had good at-bats.”
Jansen’s home run was significant on a couple of levels. It was his first of the year – welcome production from a hitter playing below his offensive potential. Adding to the significance of the homer, the Elmhurst, Ill., native’s parents were at Guaranteed Rate Field to see it.
“It means a lot. It seems like every time they’re around I hit a home run,” Jansen said. “I’m glad I was able to do it in front of them.”
One inning later, Guerrero Jr., added a homer of his own, a line drive shot to straightaway centre field that Leury Garcia nudged over the wall. That’s three homers this week for the 20-year-old, who also drew a walk.
As Montoyo said, “Any time he’s at the plate you feel like he’s got a chance to hit a bomb.”
He’s one reason Toronto’s offence will perform better than it has so far. Others will surely bounce back from slow starts, too. But we’re a quarter of the way into the season now, so this team’s offensive struggles can’t simply be dismissed as small-sample noise. As a group, they might not hit all that much this year.
Answering that question will likely take months. More pressing are the injuries that have the Blue Jays scrambling for answers in the starting rotation. As much fun as it will be to watch a lefty knuckleballer, this was by no means plan A for the Blue Jays.