Pushed behind an opener, Zeuch shows growth in Blue Jays win over Yankees

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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher T.J. Zeuch. (John Bazemore/AP)

TORONTO – If you had trouble following who was supposed to start for the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, well, New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone was right there on that errant carpet ride, too. Originally, T.J. Zeuch was supposed to get the ball. Then, it was Ryan Tepera. Then, some two hours before first pitch, Wilmer Font was the guy.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Boone replied when asked if all the changes were irritating. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to anyone there yet. There may be a perfectly good reason for it.”

Boone sought out Charlie Montoyo across the diamond shortly afterwards and the two had an amicable chat. As the Yankees are trying to survive yet another spate of injuries ahead of the post-season, the Blue Jays are simply trying to survive the final days of a turbulent rebuild year.

Even with a September-enhanced, 11-man bullpen, the Blue Jays felt a little thin Sunday, having used five relievers to get through a 13-3 drubbing Saturday, and with Tepera, Jason Adam and Jordan Romano each unavailable for the series finale.

Factor in uncertainty over how Zeuch would fare against the most productive offence in the majors, and presto, you have a morning of slot-machine starter to enjoy. As Boone discovered, there was no pre-meditated subterfuge here, just the usual desperate search for outs, this one successful in a 6-4 Blue Jays victory powered by a solid 5.1 innings from the rookie right-hander.

“The bullpen was thin so we were trying to let him go at least four innings (but) not from the beginning,” said Montoyo. “So get Font to get the middle of their lineup early on – of course he gave up a home run (to Aaron Judge in the first), but he’s been really good at that – and then have T.J. only face the top of their lineup twice.

“It worked out.”

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Now, there are certainly some bigger-picture matters to consider here, especially after Zeuch offered some food for thought by allowing only three runs, two earned, on five hits and three walks with five strikeouts.

Strategically, there’s a case to be made for using an opener, especially against a lineup as deep and imposing as that of the Yankees. Allow a pitcher to face D.J. LeMahieu, Judge and Didi Gregorius one time less and his chances of success surely rise.

And given that the baseline data on how batters fare against pitchers the third time through the order is pretty convincing, why not put a kid in his third big-league appearance in the best position to succeed?

“I think it works,” said Randal Grichuk, whose two home runs allowed the Blue Jays to finish a six-game homestand with series wins against the Red Sox and Yankees. “You take away the three at-bats (against the top of the lineup) from the starter, I like it. It’s a little different. I’m not a starter so I can’t tell you if it affects them. But I think it’s pretty good.”

Fair, but on the flip side, what kind of message is that sending to a 24-year-old looking to establish himself in the majors?

Using an opener in this case can certainly be read as the team showing the player it doesn’t believe in his ability enough to let him begin an outing versus the top of that lineup. Or that it doesn’t trust him to not shrink in the moment. All while building up the Yankees as some type of insurmountable beast (which they kind of are, but you can’t think that way as a competitor).

“I like being a starter. But whatever is best for the team is best for the team, and that’s up to Charlie,” said Zeuch, who found out he’d pitch behind an opener around 9:30 p.m. Saturday night. “Just treat it like a road start. It’s a little easier at home because you only have the one inning where we’re hitting rather than having to hit twice. But I try not to let it affect me.”

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To be fair, Zeuch had one bad inning, the third, when he first faced LeMahieu, Judge and Gregorius, who went RBI double, walk, RBI single to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead.

Zeuch grinded through that frame but limited the damage to that, and then bounced back in the fifth to get that trio in order, including back-to-back strikeouts of Judge and Gregorius.

The Blue Jays didn’t give him a chance to face them a third time, lifting him with one out and a man on second in the seventh.

Analytically, that’s the right thing to do. But developmentally?

That’s less clear, although Zeuch would certainly have learned something about himself, regardless of how things went, and the Blue Jays would have learned something about Zeuch, too.

With nothing but draft order on the line for them at this point, these games offer the type of consequence-free learning opportunities that can really augment a player’s growth.

Then again, there’s value in letting a young player leave a solid’s day work with plenty to feel good about, as Zeuch did after earning his first big-league win. He was much happier with this outing than his previous two, riding a sinker he threw 51 times in 89 pitches to keep things under control, testing out his approach against one of the game’s realest measuring sticks.

“When I pitch, not matter what part of the order I’m facing, I want to establish fastball down and away, the sinker is kind of my bread and butter pitch, and work off of that,” he said. “Then start moving in and out against guys, let the catcher read their swings and myself, I don’t want to say guess, but make an educated guess on when they’re sitting on a pitch.”

Grichuk ensured his outing didn’t go to waste with a solo shot in the third that tied the game 3-3, and a decisive three-run homer in the fifth. Zeuch, Derek Law, Sam Gaviglio and Ken Giles handled the rest, the back-and-forth about the opener quieted on this day because it worked.

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