Starting rotation, bullpen, minors … Some other team’s uniform. Thomas Pannone doesn’t have time to think about 2019, not with what 2018 has thrown at him or, in the case of an 80-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs, with what he’s brought on himself.
But Pannone might want to remember Sunday afternoon. Never mind the fact he was the winning pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays 6-2 win over the team that traded him to the Blue Jays last season – the Cleveland Indians – in his first start after a messy 3 1/3-inning outing 11 days ago. Rather, it was the way he kept body and soul together the magical three times through a good opposing lineup, or nearly at least, as he came out of the game after a Brandon Barnes home run just ahead of No. 9 hitter Erik Gonzalez’s third trip to the plate.
In particular, Pannone’s fourth inning was one to grow on: holding on to a 3-1 lead and walking back-to-back batters after a long delay necessitated by an injury suffered by Randal Grichuk on a foul ball.
The Indians’ Yan Gomes had just reached first base when catcher Reese McGuire jogged out to the mound. Five pitches later, Barnes flied out to centre field to end the threat. That was followed by a nine-pitch fifth.
“He (McGuire) told me to really settle down,” said Pannone. “I was in a good rhythm until the play Randal had and then I walked those two guys. He just told me to continue to keep coming straight at him. I have a tendency to keep falling off the mound and not getting completely through my pitches. He just kind of settled me down and got back through it.”
Pannone carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his first Major League start on Aug. 22. But that was against the Baltimore Orioles, a bad team who nonetheless tied into him the next time they faced him.
He has now made three starts and six relief appearances for the Blue Jays and has had to tinker with his routine because of the irregular work. This is September on a non-contender, with the Major League staff taking notes on how a pitcher responds to a poor performance. How self-aware Pannone is about his delivery; how he applies lessons learned. Pitching coach Pete Walker has a laundry list of things he likes to see from these young starters, but as he sifted through that list, he admitted that “turning a lineup over three times,” is the mother lode.
Before the game, manager John Gibbons had a chat with another of his September call-ups, Sean Reid-Foley. The right-hander walked five batters in 4 2/3 innings in Saturday’s 9-8 loss and was done in by the bottom of the Indians lineup. Gibbons left the door open for the chat and leaned back in his chair, his body language relaxed as he stressed the need to maintain focus up and down a major-league lineup; to understand the importance of finishing off an inning.
Reid-Foley, Pannone and Ryan Borucki could make things a lot easier on the Blue Jays front office in 2019 if they can combine with Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman to form a cost-effective rotation. It’s true that out there some place is the notion J.A. Happ will perhaps return as a free-agent; he’s said he’s open to it but given the success he’s having with the New York Yankees and his seamless transition to the Bronx, don’t be surprised if the Yankees make it worth his while to re-sign.
Gibbons shrugged when he was asked about the balance between lessons learned and damage to the psyche.
“What you don’t want to see are a bunch of poor performances in a row,” he said. “The rest is growth.”
Pannone allowed four hits in his 6 1/3 innings, giving up a solo home run to Francisco Lindor. But he kept Jose Ramirez in the infield, held down Edwin Encarnacion to 0-for-2 with a walk and struck out Michael Brantley after the Lindor homer. He and McGuire fashioned a brisk outing, and while Danny Jansen is the acknowledged No. 1 catcher right now McGuire is drawing kudos for his early work. “I like what he’s doing behind the plate,” said Gibbons. “There’s a lot there.”
The Blue Jays activated Yangervis Solarte off the disabled list before the game and started him at second base. Gibbons has a surplus of position players, and while health and veteran status will play a role in deciding how players are employed in these final three weeks – Russell Martin, who along with his partner is expecting their first child, has been told he will be used sparingly – the manager made clear that production will be a factor. “I’ll go with the hot hand,” he said. Translation: the Blue Jays finally have some internal competition in the middle of the infield and in the outfield.
The most intriguing of those battles might well be between Billy McKinney and Teoscar Hernandez: one a left-handed hitter, the other a righty. One a solid defender; another life and death on the odd line drive. One who profiles as a potential lead-off hitter (something the Blue Jays haven’t really had since Ben Revere) the other possessing the kind of power that hints at being a candidate to hit behind Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. McKinney started in left Sunday afternoon and hit a hustling double to lead off the eighth to extend his streak of reaching base to 19 games, the second-longest in the majors. But he was erased at third base when the Indians shortened up the right side of their infield defence and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., hit a roller to second.
Two batters later, after Justin Smoak reached first on a fielder’s choice grounder, Hernandez – who came on for Grichuk – cleared the bases with a three-run home run, his 20th of the season.
Smoak gave the Blue Jays a 2-0 lead in the first with his 24th homer, a two-run blast off of Indians starter Mike Clevinger. He also had a bird’s-eye view of Grichuk’s injury, as it was he who gave chase to a foul ball and pulled up as Grichuk raced in from right field and collided with the chair of an on-field security guard who was scurrying out of the way.
“Oh man … I peeked at him and I saw him slide and try to make the play and I pulled out and saw him get clocked in the face,” said Smoak.
Grichuk was placed in routine concussion evaluation and was due to receive follow-up imaging on the area around his left eye. Gibbons said he saw Grichuk between innings and he was smiling. “Pretty boy,” the manager said with a chuckle, as the Blue Jays wrapped up the penultimate homestand of a season that can’t end soon enough absorbing all manner of things – including the requisite lessons.