How Blue Jays pitchers are working to stay ready during unwanted downtime

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Matt Shoemaker speaks about what his teammates are doing to stay safe during COVID-19 and touches on the Blue Jays' postponed series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

TORONTO — The 2020 MLB season was already a unique challenge for starting pitchers before the mayhem of the last four days. They built their arms up once, deliberately over four-to-six weeks back in February and March while preparing for a 162-game season. Then they paused for four months and trained with pitching coaches over Zoom while away from club facilities and facing fluctuating uncertainty over whether or not they’d play at all. And now they’ve built up again, but this time hurriedly over a three-week period in advance of a 60-game campaign.

Nothing about it is normal, but the daily churn of regular season games, which began for the Toronto Blue Jays on July 24, at least brought a sliver of familiarity as pitchers eased back into their outing-to-outing routines. But then the Miami Marlins had a clubhouse coronavirus outbreak. And the Philadelphia Phillies got caught up in it, postponing this weekend’s games with the Blue Jays as the consequences of playing ball during a pandemic rippled throughout the league.

So now Toronto’s pitchers are back to the pause and the uncertainty. Only this time they can’t fall too far behind. That’s why several Blue Jays starters threw multiple innings against the club’s hitters during workouts Saturday and Sunday in Washington, while nearly every one of the team’s relievers took the mound at some point, working to make the most of an unexpected and unwanted four-day break from competition only a week into the season.

“It’s a challenge. But I think we’re doing the best we can, for sure,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “These guys have done a great job keeping themselves ready. And we’re very hopeful it’ll carry over. Obviously, it’s a disadvantage when you take four days off. Nobody’s going to lie about that. We’d rather be playing major-league games. But it’s the hand we were dealt. And that clubhouse has remained steadfast. And they’re doing a great job staying focused right now.”

The Blue Jays plan to start Matt Shoemaker Tuesday when they — fingers crossed — resume play in Atlanta. He’ll be followed by Hyun-Jin Ryu on Wednesday and Nate Pearson on Thursday. From there, the Blue Jays are off to Boston for the final three games of the 20-day road trip — including pre-season exhibition games — they’ve begun the season on.

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Thomas Hatch and Trent Thornton followed Shoemaker during Toronto’s first trip through the rotation, but the addition of Nate Pearson and the absence of games for four days has opened up plenty of flexibility as the Blue Jays map things out. This turn of the rotation will look a lot different than the last.

Hatch, for instance, threw 2.2 innings of efficient relief on Thursday in Washington, and that bulk bullpen role is likely where he’ll fit in going forward. Thornton, meanwhile, threw live against Blue Jays hitters during Sunday’s workout, which puts him in line to start one of the games next weekend in Boston. Chase Anderson — sidelined since late in training camp with an oblique issue — also pitched Sunday and Walker expects the club will activate him this week in Atlanta.

Anderson threw 55 pitches over three innings in his last live session against Blue Jays hitters, and, assuming he rejoins the club’s rotation, likely won’t be ready for a full starter’s workload his first time out. That could create an opportunity for someone like Hatch, Anthony Kay or Ryan Borucki to piggyback off of his start. Or even vice versa.

While those three have looked great in relief, the Blue Jays plan to continue seeking opportunities to get them multiple innings and keep them as stretched out as possible, lest the club need to call on one of them to make a spot start or enter the rotation full-time.

It’s a tough balance as game flow dictates the kind of opportunities Walker and manager Charlie Montoyo have to award, and it must be tempting for them to use a live arm like Hatch’s, Borucki’s or Kay’s in high-leverage situations that arise late in games. But even with a 60-game schedule, teams still must keep the long view in mind.

“I think we’re going to find ways to utilize them effectively,” Walker said. “Certainly, we still project these guys as starting pitchers. And we’ve got to be conscious of that.”

Like all of us, Walker and the Blue Jays coaching staff are eagerly looking forward to watching Pearson’s next outing Thursday after his dominant MLB debut last week. The 23-year-old was scheduled to throw a side session Sunday, and by bringing him back quickly the Blue Jays have opted to minimize disruption to his schedule — and, frankly, maximize competitiveness.

Tanner Roark is in line to pitch this weekend against Boston, making his second start with the Blue Jays more than a week after his first. He surely would’ve liked to be back on the mound a bit quicker in order to build off his strong, five-inning outing in Washington on Tuesday. But he’s also one of the lowest maintenance arms the Blue Jays have — one whose defining career attribute may be simply taking the ball whenever his team asks.

Last season, he pitched 11 times on four days rest, 11 on five days, and seven on six days. Asked recently for his thoughts on Toronto’s home ballpark being a minor-league facility in Buffalo, Roark said he was eager to “go the old school route and sack up.” So, he’ll likely be just fine.

And then there’s Ryu. Unexpectedly, the 33-year-old ERA title-winner has had the toughest time of any Blue Jays starter this season, with eight earned runs allowed over nine innings through his first two outings. He struggled with his fastball command in his debut on opening day against the Tampa Bay Rays, and then, Thursday, fell victim to an advanced approach from the Washington Nationals, who waited out his secondary pitches and punished them when they were left on the plate.

Ryu wasn’t thrilled with the action on his curveball and changeup in that outing. But he doesn’t typically throw bullpens or side sessions, which makes it difficult to adjust and correct issues like those in the absence of major-league games. Ryu’s also famously meticulous and routine-oriented, making any disruption to his schedule would be more vexing than it might be for a less regimented pitcher. That’s why the Blue Jays are bringing him back Wednesday in Atlanta.

“I think his stuff is close,” Walker said. “He’s a pro, he’s working hard. And he’s a guy that probably needs a routine more than anybody — getting on a five-day, a six-day routine. The more he pitches, the better off he’ll be.

“I know he’s performed better with five days off and done that a lot with LA. But when you get to six, seven, eight days, then it becomes a little bit different when you’re a finesse pitcher.”

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On the bullpen front, Ken Giles is back with the Blue Jays after having his right forearm strain assessed by a specialist and receiving a PRP injection. He’s shut down for now, but will be re-evaluated later this month to begin a throwing program. Despite the shortened season, the Blue Jays are optimistic Giles will be back on the mound at some point in 2020. And he’s optimistic, too.

“Just talking to him now, he feels very confident he’ll be pitching for us again,” Walker said. “I don’t exactly know when. But he felt confident that he’ll be pitching for us. So, that’s a good sign.”

In the meantime, Anthony Bass is Toronto’s closer, with Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis and Wilmer Font helping protect late leads. The Blue Jays bullpen gets awfully thin on power arms beyond that group, which is why Montoyo’s found himself turning to Shun Yamaguchi (four earned runs vs. three outs in his first two appearances) and Sam Gaviglio (three runs vs. three outs in his two) in leverage spots over the first week of the season and receiving unfortunate results.

Gaviglio’s since been optioned to Toronto’s taxi squad, while Yamaguchi is working to refashion his approach, targeting different areas of the zone than he has been and utilizing different pitches in certain counts.

Considering the success he’s had in Japan — Yamaguchi pitched to a 2.78 ERA with 9.6 K/9 over 181 innings last season — the Blue Jays have been relatively hands-off with the 33-year-old to this point, giving him room to establish himself and get used to new environs. But now the work has begun to modify his approach, maximize his strengths, and minimize his weaknesses.

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.

The Blue Jays are also hoping Yamaguchi’s next outing will occur in less stressful circumstances. Both of his first two MLB appearances have come in the bottom of the 10th inning of tight games with a runner starting on second base. It’s not the ideal entry point for a converted starter adjusting to a new league on a new continent.

“It’s been a challenge, I’m not going to lie about that. But he’s been great. He’s tireless. He’s determined to figure this out and to make the adjustments he needs to make to get major-league hitters out,” Walker said. “He’s the last one to leave. He’s in the cage throwing at the end of the night. We’ve got to drag him out of there at times.”

Still, another hard-thrower or two at the back end of Toronto’s bullpen would be a nice thing to have, which is where intriguing prospects Julian Merryweather and Patrick Murphy could soon come into play.

Merryweather’s been throwing in the high-90’s and likely would’ve begun the season with the Blue Jays if not for an oblique injury suffered late in training camp. He’s progressed well in his recovery, and the Blue Jays have recently discussed adding him to the big-league roster to provide some power out of the bullpen.

Likewise, Murphy missed time during training camp for an undisclosed reason, and has been up to 97-m.p.h. with his fastball recently while throwing at Toronto’s alternate training site in Rochester. Murphy was electric during spring training, and his first major-league opportunity could be coming soon.

“With Ken being down, and the potential for guys coming up with 97, 98 mile per hour fastballs, that’s always something that’s intriguing,” Walker said. “Right now I think we’re in a good place. But those are certainly guys that could be added at any time.”

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