Blue Jays’ Ryan Borucki, Nate Pearson making cases for rotation spots

Toronto Blue Jays left-handed pitcher Ryan Borucki, left, and catcher Danny Jansen during summer camp at the Rogers Centre. (Toronto Blue Jays/Twitter)

TORONTO — As they race through an accelerated build-up to a condensed regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays are weighing plenty of options for their pitching staff. That’s good because they’ll need them. Some pitchers won’t be fully stretched out when the season begins. Others will inevitably be lost to injury. Some will suffer poor performance and be called upon less as managers face consequential games right from the jump. It’s why teams will carry 30 players on opening day.

Beyond the top four in Toronto’s rotation, there’s Trent Thornton, Nate Pearson, Shun Yamaguchi, Anthony Kay, Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Hatch, T.J. Zeuch, and Jacob Waguespack all contending for regular season innings. And then there’s Ryan Borucki, who’s doing everything he can to keep himself front of mind as the Blue Jays start making decisions.

“I feel like I’m in the mix. I know what I’m capable of doing. I feel like everybody in this organization knows what I’m capable of doing. I showed that off in 2018,” Borucki said. “And I feel like today was a good step to show everybody that maybe wrote me off that I am back and I can get hitters out in the big leagues.”

Borucki went three scoreless innings during Saturday’s intrasquad game, getting plenty of soft contact and groundballs from Blue Jays hitters. As a pitcher who relies on late movement, the groundballs were encouraging. But the best sign for Borucki was how he incorporated his new cutter, which he’s added to his repertoire in place of the slider he’s featured in previous seasons.

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Borucki feels the cutter will play better off his fastball, particularly if he can throw both in the same lane. While the fastball will run, the cutter will cut, giving him two directions in which to move the ball off the barrel of hitter’s bats. Of course, this is all in service of setting up his change-up, which will still be Borucki’s primary out pitch and reliable standby in tough situations.

“I work inside to hitters really well, running it back in on them. And then I can just throw the cutter right off that same lane and try to jam guys,” he said. “I feel like it’s a better pitch than that bigger slider for me.”

Borucki threw his slider around 18 per cent of the time in 2018, when he pitched to a 3.87 ERA over 17 big-league starts. It remains to be seen whether he’ll feature the new cutter at a similar clip going forward or lean more on his fastball and change-up. One thing we do know is that Borucki’s slider has caused some of his arms troubles in the past, as the pulling motion he makes throwing it puts added stress on his elbow.

Is that an ancillary reason why Borucki’s no longer throwing the pitch? It’s possible. The 25-year-old has undergone multiple surgeries over his young career — including Tommy John in 2013 — and made only six starts last year as elbow troubles continued to plague him until another operation ended his season. Then, he was shut down again this spring after experiencing tightness in his elbow while building up for his return.

That thankfully turned out to be nothing major, and Borucki was just being cleared to get back on a mound when MLB camps shut down. It was unfortunate timing, but the break did give him the chance to build back up more methodically. Once restrictions began loosening he was able to throw a series of live batting practice sessions in Florida, getting up to as high as 50 pitches.

Borucki will continue being stretched out from here, and stay ready to pitch as a starter. It’s certainly not out of the question that he could be used out of the bullpen this season, particularly if the club is looking to piggyback some arms early in the campaign. But Borucki’s one goal is to prove he can be the 2018 version of himself again. And let the results speak for themselves.

“Last year, I don’t think anybody really got to see the true Ryan Borucki,” he said. “I was battling with a lot of things arm-wise and mentally it was draining. And once I got the surgery and obviously when I came into spring and I got shut down, those demons kind of came back.

“But as I started to progress and we figured out that everything’s good, my arm’s feeling good, it just brought me back. Just having that confidence again and being able to worry about getting hitters out instead of my arm hurting, it’s a nice thing. It takes that weight off my shoulders. I can just go out and have fun and pitch.”

Pearson aces stiff test

When the Blue Jays sent the lineups for Saturday’s intrasquad game to the club’s players Friday night, Nate Pearson looked at his opposition and liked the names he saw. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Gerrero Jr., Travis Shaw, Randal Grichuk — all of them established hitters at the highest level of the sport.

“I got really excited, because that’s our A lineup,” he said. “And I’ll be facing a lot of A lineups once I get my call to the big leagues. It just shows what my stuff measures up to. And I thought I did pretty well today.”

Tough to argue with that, after Pearson worked two no-hit innings against what’s likely to be the top of Toronto’s opening day batting order, never letting the ball leave the infield.

He led off the first falling behind Bichette, 2-0, before battling back to 2-2 and getting a groundout to second. Then, in a fun battle, he got ahead of Biggio 0-2 but ultimately walked him on seven pitches. Biggio spoiled a wicked Pearson curveball at one point, breaking his bat. At another, Pearson thought he had strike three on the outside corner, walking off the mound only to discover home plate umpire Ken Huckaby hadn’t given him the call.

After Biggio’s walk, Guerrero Jr. stepped in and Pearson came right after him with fastballs, one of which Guerrero just missed, fouling it straight back. With a 2-2 count, Pearson located a breaking ball that generated an awkward swing from Guerrero, who grounded into a double play.

The back-and-forth battles with Bichette and Biggio are particularly valuable for a pitcher like Pearson, as he learns how to attack different hitters in different situations, and how his stuff plays in particular counts.

“It was definitely good to have those battles because that’s what we’re going to get in the game,” he said. “So, its’ really good to simulate those in a controlled environment like we are now. It’s really good to go head-to-head with Bo, Cavan, Vlad — the whole lineup, really. It was really fun for me.”

Pearson’s second inning was pitched in cruise control, as he struck out Travis Shaw swinging on five pitches, and Randal Grichuk looking on four. The second strikeout was particularly nasty, as Pearson leaned on his off-speed and breaking balls, locating them for strikes on the edges of the zone. The closest Grichuk came to offering at one was a check swing he couldn’t hold back.

Pearson spent his time over the last several months continuing to hone those secondary weapons using Rapsodo data and slow-motion video captured with Edgertronic cameras. He lived and trained with Tayler Saucedo — Toronto’s 21st-round pick in the 2015 Draft — through the shutdown and spent plenty of time working on his craft at Kinetic Pro Performance in Tampa, Fla.

It’s the continuation of a years-long process that has taken Pearson from a hard-thrower with only an overpowering fastball to a more complete pitcher with a variety of weapons he can use to better set up that heater.

“I was definitely trying to hit it on every single off-speed pitch and I threw strikes off every single one, which was really good. I haven’t been able to do that in the past a lot,” Pearson said. “So, to come out here, first time in intrasquad, and to hit every single pitch for a strike was really good.”

Rowdy Tellez was Pearson’s final hitter of the day. He worked a 2-2 count, but Pearson ultimately induced a soft ground out to first. In all, Pearson threw 30 pitches, 17 for strikes. He looked every bit like the frontline starter the Blue Jays hope he’s developing into, picking up right where he left off after a dominant spring training.

“I feel like I didn’t really skip a beat,” he said. “I felt really great on that mound. It felt like home.”

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