Blue Jays’ Gaviglio a rare glimmer in grim season

Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton homered in the 13th inning to get the Yankees past the Blue Jays for a 3-0 win.

TORONTO — The fact that Sam Gaviglio entered his outing Wednesday night as the only Toronto Blue Jays starter this season with an ERA south of four says a few things.

It says something about Blue Jays starting pitching, which has fluctuated between erratic and downright undependable over the club’s first 60 games. Toronto’s staff has posted MLB’s sixth-worst ERA (5.31), eighth-worst FIP (4.65), and sixth-worst WHIP (1.44). Of the seven pitchers to make a start, only J.A. Happ is having anything resembling a strong season, as he’s put up 1.6 wins above replacement. The other six have combined for one WAR between them.

It says something else about why the Blue Jays are where they are. Toronto is nine games under .500, 11 games back of the American League’s second wild-card spot, and riding a stretch of 32 games without consecutive wins. Entering play, FanGraphs was giving the Blue Jays a 2.6 per cent chance of qualifying for the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus had it at 0.9 per cent. Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the New York Yankees — decided by a pair of homers off Joe Biagini in the 13th inning — will only make those numbers less palatable.

And it says another thing — less important in the grand scheme but notable nonetheless — about what a nice find Gaviglio has been.

Acquired for cash considerations from the Kansas City Royals a week prior to opening day, the 28-year-old was meant to be triple-A depth — a replacement in the Buffalo Bisons rotation for left-handed prospect Thomas Pannone, who was suspended 80 games during spring training after testing positive for a banned substance.

But as Toronto’s rotation combusted, and Marcus Stroman hit the disabled list with right shoulder fatigue, Gaviglio was summoned to the big leagues to pitch for his third MLB team over the last two seasons. Expectations, understandably, were low.

And yet, after two strong relief outings, Gaviglio entered the rotation and started to do work. He threw a 5.1-inning shutout in his first outing and a quality start in his second. He was hurt by a pair of long balls in his third but still completed six innings — a feat Toronto starters have found rather challenging this season.

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He wasn’t doing anything special, relying primarily on an 89-m.p.h. fastball and 84-m.p.h. slider to generate soft contact both on the ground and in the air. Every once and a while he’d flip up a curveball or mix in a change-up. But, for the most part, it was sinkers, sliders, and outs.

And that was the story again Wednesday, as Gaviglio spun a gem against a very dangerous Yankees lineup. He walked a pair in the second but got out of it with a groundball. He gave up a double in the fourth but stranded it with a flyball. He loaded the bases with two out in the fifth, but found another groundball to escape again.

He completed seven innings on 104 pitches, and surrendered only a single and a walk his third time through the order. Of the six base runners he allowed, three reached on walks, two on singles, and one on a two-out double.

Through it all, his formula remained uncomplicated — sinkers, sliders, and outs. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 27 batters he faced. He didn’t get much swing-and-miss, but he didn’t need it, as 12 outs came on the ground. He allowed only three balls to be put in play with a hit probability of 50 per cent of higher, and only one of them ended up a hit.

That’s all to say he was pretty good against a pretty good team. And, over four starts now, he’s been pretty good on a pretty bad team. Wednesday, he lowered that staff-leading ERA all the way down to 2.58 and left no question that he deserves to remain in Toronto’s rotation for the foreseeable future.

During a Blue Jays season that is slowly progressing towards a grim inevitability, Gaviglio has been a rare glimmer. No one will blame you for being skeptical as to whether it can continue. He doesn’t throw hard, he doesn’t miss bats, and he’s never pitched this well in his eight professional seasons. But Gaviglio’s still leading this staff in ERA. And the Blue Jays will take it as long as it lasts.

“I’m just taking it one game at a time, not trying to do too much, trusting what I’ve got — I think that’s the big thing,” Gaviglio said. “Throwing strikes. I’m a little frustrated with some walks today, but I was able to get through it.”

Yes, Gaviglio was good Wednesday, but Yankees starter Sonny Gray was better. The right-hander was perfect through four as the Blue Jays struggled against a steady mix of four-seamers, two-seamers, curveballs, and sliders that all started in the same place before moving in very different directions.

He looked briefly vulnerable in the fifth, allowing a double to Justin Smoak and a single to Kendrys Morales for his first two hits of the night. But Smoak was cut down at home after a Kevin Pillar groundball to third. Then, after Russell Martin walked to load the bases, Gray used a 95-m.p.h. two-seamer to get Devon Travis to bounce into an inning-ending double play.

Gray completed eight shutout innings, striking out eight and allowing only two hits against an uninspiring Blue Jays offence that is averaging 3.2 runs per game over its last 10. And the inertia extended into extras, as Toronto mustered only four hits through 13 innings, at one point making 16 outs in a row.

“He was throwing a lot of strikes, he was attacking the zone, he was throwing a couple different pitches for strikes,” Pillar said. “That’s kind of the recipe to be successful in the big leagues.”

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Neither team scored until the 13th, when Biagini took over, allowed a one-out single to Brett Gardner, then left a curveball just a little too high to Aaron Judge, who drove it 404-feet over the wall in left-centre.

An out later, Giancarlo Stanton added a prodigious homer of his own, driving a 1-0 change-up over the wall in left. The ball left his bat at 119.3 m.p.h. Not long after, the Blue Jays left their dugout with another loss.

It was the team’s eighth in its last 10, it’s 15th in its last 20, and its 23rd in 33 games since the beginning of May. As a player in the midst of all that losing, how do you even process it?

“As best we can,” Pillar said. “It’s not a position we want to find ourselves in, but it’s the reality of the situation right now. We’ve just got to figure out a way to claw ourselves out of this. You come with the mindset that today’s going to be the day, and it doesn’t happen — you’ve just got to learn how to move on from this and look forward to tomorrow and try to come out and get something going.”

Toronto’s record is now 26-35. The possibility of this team qualifying for the post-season is extremely remote. It’s a bleak situation any way you look at it. But do the Blue Jays believe they deserve a better fate?

“No, I think we’re at where we’re at,” Pillar said. “Baseball players don’t believe in that. They say over the course of the year things even out — but they really don’t. So, our record is what our record is. We don’t deserve better. If you want to deserve better, you go out and earn it.”

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