Why Blue Jays pitcher Tim Mayza could see time at first base

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DUNEDIN, Fla. – Breaking camp with the Toronto Blue Jays is going to be something new for left-hander Tim Mayza, who last year rode the options train between triple-A Buffalo and the big-leagues a galling seven times each way. Next Thursday, he’ll take a spot on the third-base line and hear his name announced before the 2019 opener against the visiting Detroit Tigers.

“Definitely some excitement,” says Mayza, who was pulled aside by manager Charlie Montoyo on Tuesday and told he’s made the club. “I’ve never been a part of an opening day (in the majors), even as a fan growing up. I never went to opening day because I was either playing or I was in class. It was definitely a lot of excitement going on in that moment.”

Another new experience this spring for the 27-year-old from Allentown, Pa., has been regularly taking throws at first base, a byproduct of his status as the only lefty in the bullpen.

Last year, Montoyo was part of the Tampa Bay Rays staff that moved lefty Jose Alvarado from the mound to first base and back to the mound in the ninth inning of a 1-0 win over Washington. Later in the season, they did the same thing with closer Sergio Romo, only hiding him across the diamond at third base instead. The Chicago Cubs went one better than the Rays by alternating relievers Steve Cishek and Brian Duensing between the mound and left field in a June contest.

This spring, Montoyo has already shown a penchant for such creativity by pushing out infielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Eric Sogard and Richard Urena into a four-man outfield.

Mayza last played first as a freshman at Millersville University in 2011, appearing in two games while getting five at-bats (he had two hits). That year, he also logged 20 games at first for the Quakertown Blazers of the Atlantic collegiate summer league, but until this spring hadn’t been back over since.

“It’s been a while,” he says with a smile. “I’m just over there just in case we make one of those double switches, getting comfortable with being able to receive the ball at first base and my footwork over there. I have fun with it. …

“I play catch every day, so catching the ball shouldn’t be much of a problem. I’ve got to make sure I don’t get trucked or run over at first base. But it’s going as well as I thought it would.”

The likeliest scenario for Mayza to end up at first in a game is if an extreme pull right-handed hitter came up with a lefty or two following. The Blue Jays have emphasized positional flexibility for its players in recent years, and outfielder Billy McKinney’s work at first base helps in that regard.

Still, the possibility hadn’t crossed Mayza’s mind until Montoyo asked him about getting some work in over at first base.

“I was a little taken aback, I didn’t know if they were joking or serious,” Mayza recalls. “But Charlie was like, ‘No, I’m serious,’ so I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ It comes along with being the only lefty in the bullpen right now. In years past we had Aaron Loup and myself at times, so there are two guys. Now, being the only lefty comes with that role.”

To that end, Mayza will need to be managed carefully so as to not be overworked, something Montoyo is conscious of. In between his Toronto-Buffalo yo-yo ride, he logged 35.2 innings over 37 appearances, striking out 40 while walking 14 and posting a 3.28 ERA. With the Bisons, he logged 25.2 more frames in 20 outings.

Even more work looms this year.

“It’s hard for me to step back and say I need a day – it’s just the competitor in me wants to throw every day and if (Montoyo) needs me, I want to be available,” Mayza said of managing his workload. “I want to be there for the team.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

With a fastball that averaged 94.41 m.p.h. in 2018 and a slider he threw at 86.6, he’s positioned to do that, having learned how to better employ his mix over the past two seasons. Mayza believes his main points of progress have come in learning how to prepare for who he may face night in and night out.

“Just understanding hitters, watching video and being able to understand strengths of hitters, weaknesses of hitters and also understanding what my keys are mechanically that make me click, and make me maybe get back in the zone when my slider is not going where I want it,” says Mayza. “What mechanical cues can I use when my mechanics aren’t repeating to the best of my ability. There’s definitely a smoother transition than before.”

A smoother transition that also extends to a spot on the Blue Jays roster, and maybe even some defensive work at first base, too.

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