Nate Pearson hits injured list as Blue Jays continue gruelling stretch

Shi Davidi joined Hazel Mae to talk about Nate Pearson’s injury and how the Blue Jays can handle their roster moving forward.

This certainly was not how anyone envisioned it going. Four starts in to his major-league career, Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Nate Pearson has walked nearly as many batters (12) and he’s struck out (14), given up nearly as many runs (15) as innings he’s pitched (16.1), and allowed nearly as many big-league home runs (5) as he did over his entire minor-league career (9).

The latest grim turn of events, revealed by Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo Wednesday morning, sees the 23-year-old hit the 10-day injured list with right elbow tightness. The club has not given a timetable for his return. All we know is he’s undergoing a series of tests to determine what, exactly, is wrong.

“And then we’ll go from there,” Montoyo said. “We’ll see where he is. But, right now, he’s going to go on the IL.”

Montoyo said Pearson brought the issue to the club’s attention after he needed 81 pitches to turn the Baltimore Orioles lineup over twice Wednesday night. Montoyo also said it came as a surprise and that if he’d known about it during Pearson’s outing he would have lifted him from the game.

“Oh, yeah — first time he ever mentioned that,” Montoyo said. “We’re going to go through all the tests to see where we are. But the good news this morning is that he was feeling better than he did last night. But, of course, we’re going to be careful with him.”

Regardless of when the tightness arose, Pearson clearly hasn’t felt his best since going five scoreless against the Washington Nationals in his stellar MLB debut three weeks ago. In three subsequent starts, he’s walked 10 batters over 11.1 innings and allowed five home runs. He’s thrown only 59 per cent of his pitches for strikes and his fastball command in particular has been uncharacteristically spotty.

He appeared less than confident with the pitch Wednesday, throwing it 42 per cent of the time while leaning heavily on his slider and curveball. That fastball usage is suspiciously low considering it is Pearson’s best weapon and that he’d been dialling it up to 99 mph on the night. Leading off the third inning, Pearson threw exclusively breaking balls and off-speed pitches to Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander, who hit the fifth pitch of his at-bat — a 1-2 slider — over the centre-field wall.

It was a similar story in the fifth, as Pearson walked Andrew Velazquez at the end of an eight-pitch plate appearance with a fastball that missed by nearly two feet. He then left a slider on the plate to Chance Sisco, who put it over the wall in right.

More than half the pitches Pearson threw to those two batters — his final two of the night — were sliders or curveballs. Considering where his fastballs to Velazquez were ending up, you can imagine why.

Pearson walked only 2.3 batters per nine innings over 34 career minor-league starts, and just 1.5 in three triple-A outings before earning a promotion to the majors this season, where his BB/9 sits at 6.6. His command hasn’t been this unreliable since a rough stretch at the Arizona Fall League in 2018 when Pearson was pitching for the first time after missing six months with a broken arm.

Speaking to reporters prior to Wednesday’s outing, Pearson said he’d identified a flaw in his delivery while reviewing video with pitching coach Pete Walker that he believed was leading to the command issue. He wasn’t landing his front foot in a consistent spot on the mound, which was causing him to fly open in his delivery rather than staying closed towards home plate.

He was also seeking to adjust his mentality going into his start against the Orioles, feeling he’d been trying to pitch too precisely to the outside edges of the strike zone rather than attacking on the plate and letting his stuff take care of the rest.

“I’m developing here at the highest level. And when I don’t have my best stuff like I haven’t had in the past two starts, I’m going to struggle — without a doubt,” he said on Monday. “But I know that with my work ethic I’ll come out the other end successful. And once I do figure out command and all the other things that I’m working on, I know it’s going to be really good. It’s going to take off.”

Wednesday’s outing didn’t prove to be the launching pad Pearson was hoping for. And now he’ll have at least 10 days — quite likely more — to recalibrate. Montoyo said his club will use “some kind of bullpen day” to cover off Pearson’s next scheduled outing this weekend. That likely means one or more of Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay and Jacob Waguespack logging a bulk outing with other shorter-stint relievers filling in the gaps.


Of course, it will depend on what happens between now and then. The Blue Jays have two games Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies — scheduled to be started by Chase Anderson and Trent Thornton – to get through first. And who knows what the club’s injured list will look like come the end of the week as Toronto continues on a stretch of 28 games in 27 days.

Pearson’s name is now added to a long list of MLB players lost to injury this season, as the worst fears over the physical toll of pandemic baseball have materialized. As of Wednesday morning, there were 202 players on the injured list across the league. That’s more than seven 28-man rosters.

The last seven days alone have seen Stephen Strasburg, DJ LeMahieu and Yordan Alvarez all hit the injured list. They join Josh Donaldson, Aaron Judge, Ronald Acuna Jr., Madison Bumgarner, Mike Soroka, Andrew Benintendi and a host of other high-impact players who have gone down since the season began.

Toronto’s injured list now includes its top pitching prospect (Pearson), closer (Ken Giles) and best position player (Bo Bichette). And more injury adversity is almost certainly coming.

Between now and the end of the season, the Blue Jays have only two off days, which are essentially nullified by the pair of double-headers on the club’s schedule. It’s an uncommonly demanding grind in an inherently demanding sport. Injuries like the ones to Pearson and Bichette are bound to crop up.

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Of course, one of the most important things players like them can do is be open and honest with their team’s training staff regarding their health, alerting the club of any small issues before they develop into bigger ones.

Considering their innate competitiveness and baseball’s institutionalized pressure to play through pain, athletes are often tempted to ignore these minor ailments, forgoing proper recovery and continuing to compete at less than optimal health. But that only serves to worsen the problem, and potentially create ancillary ones as the individual compensates for the pain and puts additional stress on other parts of their body.

Take Anthony Bass. This past weekend, the 32-year-old reliever began experiencing back discomfort. Rather than hiding the issue and pitching through it, he brought it to the attention of Blue Jays staff. That’s why he wasn’t available to pitch in either of Toronto’s losses to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday in Buffalo.

“The competitor in me, I didn’t want to sit out. I wanted to get out on the mound,” Bass said. “But I knew something wasn’t feeling right in my back. And they immediately shut me down. They didn’t even let me try to fight it.”

Consequently, the rest and treatment Bass received is the reason he was able to pitch on back-to-back days Monday and Tuesday in a pair of Blue Jays wins. It’s also why, when Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker asked him if he could go a second inning Tuesday night and protect a slim extra-innings lead, Bass was confident he could.

“Yeah, I felt like I was rolling. I threw the night before, but my body felt strong,” Bass said. “I felt like I could give the team another inning. And, honestly, I felt like the best chance for our team to win was me being out on the mound there in the 10th inning.”

And the best chance for the team to win going forward is if Bass doesn’t even touch a baseball on Wednesday. He’s one of several Blue Jays relievers who were unavailable to pitch in the series finale against the Orioles, as the club prioritized the long-term health and effectiveness of its bullpen arms over the short-term temptation of a series sweep.

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Bass has honed in on his recovery more than ever this year, ensuring he isn’t throwing too much in between outings and giving his arm enough rest to withstand the unusual stress of a 60-game season following a three-week training camp. Several Blue Jays pitchers have been utilizing workload measurement technology such as Catapult wearables and Motus sleeves to track the tolls their arms are withstanding this season, using objective data to make smarter decisions with regards to how much, and how often, they work.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a concern. You’ve got to stay on top of your shoulder care, your conditioning, your working out. Making sure you’re not doing too much,” Bass says. “This season is just different for everyone. And I don’t want to push it too hard and land on the IL.”

But it can happen to anyone. Pearson’s been leading the charge organizationally when it comes to utilizing data and technology to not only optimize his innate physical ability, but ensure he’s maximizing his recovery. He pitches with a heart rate variability monitor on his wrist; he tracks his sleep quality; he’s been developing a personalized arm care routine since he was in college; he spends his winters at Driveline Baseball ironing out inefficiencies in his movement patterns.

And now he’s on the injured list. Another unfortunate turn of events in a debut MLB season that hasn’t gone anything like Pearson expected it would. But his health — in both the short- and long-term — must be the priority right now. And a chance to catch his breath and reset probably won’t hurt, either.

“Yeah, we want the best for Nate and his health. We need him 100 per cent. When he’s 100 per cent, everyone sees what he can do,” Bass said. “So, we want him to take this time to really take care of himself. We’re going to pick up the slack.”

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