NEW YORK — Typically, especially considering how baseball is played these days, the situation in the top of the seventh for the Toronto Blue Jays would have dictated a call to the bullpen. Rookie lefty Thomas Pannone was at 97 pitches before a crowd of 41,758 at Yankee Stadium. Two men were on with one out midway through his third trip through the order. A pair of hard-hitting righties in Gary Sanchez and Luke Voit were due up for the New York Yankees, who were up a run and looking to add on.
Pretty much a perfect spot for a righty to come in to try and keep things level.
Instead, manager John Gibbons stuck with Pannone, exposing him and rookie catcher Reese McGuire to the kind of proving-ground opportunity that simply can’t be replicated any other way. The duo responded, Pannone inducing a lazy fly ball from Sanchez and a groundball to short from Voit to end the threat, McGuire putting an arm around his pitcher on his way off the field, Gibbons offering up a handshake upon entry to the dugout.
“You’re here to groom starters, not relievers,” Gibbons said of deciding to stick with his lefty. “He was throwing good, I saw no drop off … and the way I look at it, is what you’re going to bring going to be any better than what he’s doing right there, why would you even think about it sometimes? It’s all based on how he’s throwing and I thought he was throwing great. And some guys earn the right, that’s their game.
“Until they experience that and have some success, you’re guessing unless you give them a shot.”
It’s in those kinds of experiences that the Blue Jays will derive the most value from this September, made all the better Sunday by the rally that followed in the eighth inning for a 3-2 win over the Yankees and their only series victory against them this year.
McGuire, who collected his first big-league RBI in the third with a double that cut New York’s lead to 2-1, started the rally in the eighth with a single off Dellin Betances. He took third on Justin Smoak’s single and scored on Rowdy Tellez’s pinch-hit single to tie things up, while Randal Grichuk’s RBI double put the Blue Jays ahead.
Mark Leiter Jr. stranded Giancarlo Stanton at third in the bottom of the eighth, pumping his fist after striking out Aaron Hicks to end the frame, before Ken Giles locked things down in the ninth for his 22nd save, all set up by that crucial zero in the seventh.
“That’s what defines an outing, really, how you close it out,” said Pannone. “You want to start good but you want to end the outing better than you started, obviously. I’ve been in that situation before. That first outing in Toronto (against Baltimore), I had my back up against the wall in the seventh inning and got my way out of that, too.
“I actually enjoy those situations, too. I have to focus harder, I have to be my best in that time. I accept that challenge.”
There were challenges for Pannone well before that seventh, as well, as his outing started inauspiciously when Andrew McCutchen hammered his second pitch of the game over the wall, Stanton walked and Hicks singled. But he limited the damage to a Didi Gregorius sacrifice fly and then retired 16 of his next 17 batters until the trouble brewed in the seventh.
“It’s tough coming out and the first hitter of the game takes you deep but you’ve got to look past that, you can’t let your day be defined by that,” said Pannone. “The inning got long on me, too, I had to battle my way out of that first inning. Once I got out of it, I really settled in nice and just executed my game plan.”
Pairing seamlessly with McGuire, the 2013 first-rounder cleverly plucked from Pittsburgh in the Francisco Liriano deal ahead of the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline, Pannone predominantly rode a fastball he used to pick at the outer half of the zone, mixing in his changeup to keep the Yankees out of sorts.
He generated 14 swinging strikes — four on a heater that averaged 87.8 m.p.h. — seven on his 22 changeups and three more on 19 curveballs. While Sean Reid-Foley shoved heat down the Yankees’ throats on Saturday, Pannone efficiently cut them up.
“I love catching that guy, he brings it every time,” said McGuire. “He’s a gamer and he pretty much follows along. He knows his stuff plays, each one of his pitches he can throw in any count and he has the trust in whoever’s back there, whether it’s me or (Danny) Jansen, who caught him a lot, too. I feel like we all do a good job with him and he mixes well.”
That it all came within the cauldron of Yankee Stadium, tense with the home side struggling to fend off the Oakland Athletics for the right to host the wild-card game, only amplified the experience.
For now, the only meaning to the Blue Jays in these moments is in living through them as they build toward a time when there will more than just a learning curve on the line.