Blue Jays’ Hutchison plying trade with little left to prove in Buffalo

Right-hander Drew Hutchison, pictured here during spring training, sports a 2.74 ERA across 11 starts in triple-A this year. (Frank Gunn/CP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Drew Hutchison retired the first 17 batters he faced Tuesday night. He commanded his fastball; he featured the best, most consistent slider anyone’s seen him throw all year; he flashed his change-up in two-strike counts to right-handers, giving the same batters he’d faced in a start five days earlier a look that they hadn’t seen from him before. It was one of the best outings he’s thrown since 2014 when he returned from Tommy John surgery and showed such promise in 32 major league outings that the Blue Jays made him their opening day starter the next season.

But Hutchison wasn’t necessarily happy about it. That’s because his start Tuesday night wasn’t against the Baltimore Orioles or the Boston Red Sox — it was against the Columbus Clippers. It wasn’t in front of 48,000 at Rogers Centre or Yankee Stadium — it was before 4,800 at Coca Cola Field. He wasn’t spotting those sliders to David Ortiz or Evan Longoria — he was throwing them to Ronny Rodriguez and Guillermo Quiroz, who you may remember as the one-time Blue Jays catcher of the future who is now firmly entrenched as a veteran triple-A player.

It’s because Drew Hutchison doesn’t play for the Toronto Blue Jays, he plays for the Buffalo Bisons — a team he’s enjoyed great success pitching for this year but nevertheless is not at all where he wants to be. And when he was asked after Tuesday night’s start if he thought the Blue Jays were taking notice of his run of strong outings in Buffalo this season, the ever-succinct Hutchison shrugged his shoulders.

“You just go out there and try to execute pitches,” he said, “and do what you’re capable of doing.”

Perhaps you noticed that didn’t answer the question. But to be fair, asking it put Hutchison in a tough spot, an even tougher one than his career currently resides in. Unofficially sixth on the Blue Jays starting pitching depth chart, the 25-year-old has made just one major league start this season, a late-April outing against the Oakland Athletics when the Blue Jays wanted to give their five-man rotation an extra day of rest.

Unless someone in that group is injured over the coming weeks, or underperforms considerably, Hutchison can only hope for another spot start like that one, when he held the Athletics to two runs on a pair of solo shots over 5.2 innings, striking out five.

Otherwise, Hutchison has to wait until the Blue Jays move Aaron Sanchez to the bullpen later this season, which is the team’s plan in order to limit the young starter’s workload. Of course, when exactly that will happen is anyone’s guess, and with Sanchez enjoying extremely favourable results of late, it seems like Hutchison could be stuck in Buffalo for quite some time.

Bisons manager Gary Allenson certainly won’t mind that, as Hutchison was perfect through five-and-two-thirds innings Tuesday night, helping the Bisons move to two games over .500 after starting the season 11-17. The very first batter of the game took Hutchison to the wall in centre field, where Darrell Ceciliani made a tricky, running catch. But from there?

“After that, he was money,” Allenson said. “He probably had the best slider he’s had all year tonight.”

The running joke around the Bisons this year is that Hutchison simply couldn’t win at triple-A. He came into 2016 with zero wins in six career starts at that level, and then began this season with eight consecutive starts that also didn’t earn him a win, running his record to 0-6 in 14 career triple-A outings. It’s a strange anomaly, one Hutchison doesn’t have much time for, saying bluntly, “I think we all know those don’t really matter.”

He’s right, of course. Truly, Hutchison had just been incredibly unlucky. In five of his first eight outings this season, the Bisons scored just two runs or less behind him. In his first start of the year, he struck out nine over five innings, allowing just three baserunners, and still took the loss. In another two weeks ago, Hutchison left after the seventh inning with a 5-1 lead only to watch his bullpen allow four runs in the eighth and ninth.

All told, he’s allowed just one earned run or less in seven of his 11 starts for the Bisons and carries a 2.74 ERA with a 9.59 K/9. And yet, his first career triple-A win didn’t arrive until his 15th start at that level last weekend against the same Columbus Clippers he dominated Tuesday night.

It was an outing when Hutchison actually wasn’t at his best, allowing four earned runs and walking five. But he still got the win because the Bisons were up 11-3 when he left with a runner on in the sixth inning. (Unbelievably, even that win was almost lost, as Chad Jenkins relieved Hutchison and promptly allowed five earned runs to score as the Clippers came within a run of tying the game.)

“He got that first triple-A win out of the way finally, so maybe it helped him relax,” Allenson said, tongue-in-cheek, reflecting on Hutchison’s perfect game bid Tuesday. “But look, he did a super job. I’m sure they’re watching up there.”

Up there would be Toronto, where Blue Jays brass surely see a pitcher who’s too good for the minor leagues but doesn’t have a place on the big league club. Hutchison still has his command issues here and there, but you could say that about a lot of major leaguers, and as he mows down triple-A competition before sparse crowds in small towns, there’s really little left for him to prove. His stuff looks great; he’s pitching with good tempo; and he’s striking out more than a batter an inning.

“Consistent release point and just making pitches,” a terse Hutchison said when asked what’s made him so effective. “When you’re able to get into a groove and find that release point, that usually happens.”

Another thing that usually happens is young pitchers with 72 career major league starts and very good recent results get opportunities in the big leagues. But as Hutchison pitched Tuesday night in Buffalo, retiring batter after batter while a small group of four seagulls sat undisturbed next to the pitchers mound, the big leagues had to feel pretty far away. And if anything, he must be hoping something unusual happens soon.

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