TORONTO – The challenge for starting pitchers is not only turning over a lineup multiple times per game but also taking the ball every five days throughout a long and physically demanding season.
By using openers more liberally, the Blue Jays can shield their pitchers from the challenge of facing opposing hitters three times, but there’s still a physical toll for those tasked with eating innings. In some ways, Thomas Pannone’s performance in Sunday’s 7-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners reinforces that point.
Pannone gave the Blue Jays 3.2 innings in relief of opener Wilmer Font, but he topped out at 91.2 m.p.h. while allowing two of the four homers the Mariners hit. As the season has progressed, Pannone’s velocity has dropped off slightly but consistently, leaving him with less margin for error.
“It’s a big challenge because you have to locate,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “If you don’t locate you get hit at the big-league level for sure and that’s what happened today. He’s not throwing as hard, he didn’t locate and he got hit hard.”
Granted, Pannone’s not alone in that department (Sean Reid-Foley’s another pitcher whose velocity has dropped off as the season has progressed) but it’s far from ideal for the Blue Jays at a time that they’re trying to identify potential solutions in their starting rotation.
On the season, Pannone has a 6.44 ERA with 13 home runs allowed in just 65.2 innings. While it’s impossible to say exactly how diminished velocity connects to his struggles, it’s undeniable that the home runs have been coming more frequently of late. After starting the season with eight homer-free games, Pannone has allowed multiple homers in three of his last four outings.
“My last couple outings, my velo’s been more 88-90,” he said. “I’m just working through some stuff out there, trying to make pitches.”
“I feel fine physically,” he continued. “Nothing’s bothering me, I’m just trying to repeat my delivery and make quality pitches.”
More encouraging was the start from Font, who allowed one run on three hits over his two innings of work while striking out three. Given his success as an opener, you can count on seeing him start more games for the Blue Jays down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays’ bats were notably quiet on a day Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was on the bench due to knee discomfort. All told, the Blue Jays managed just two hits–a Brandon Drury double and a Randal Grichuk single. Otherwise, Yusei Kikuchi held them at bay on his way to a complete game shutout.
“It was a combination of (Kikuchi) doing his job and us,” Montoyo said. “Our approach wasn’t that great today, but I don’t want to take anything away from what he did.”
While Guerrero Jr. wasn’t in the starting lineup, he appears to have avoided a major injury after leaving Saturday’s game in the second inning. An MRI revealed nothing more than inflammation and Guerrero Jr. said he felt ‘a lot’ better Sunday, explaining that the ‘tweak’ he felt was far more mild than the strained left patellar tendon that sidelined him for 39 days last summer.
“It was totally different from last year,” Guerrero Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it was the one like last year – I couldn’t even walk last year, pretty much. So I’m good but, I just want to be cautious about it, we all want to be cautious about it and hopefully I’ll be back in the lineup very soon.”
Guerrero Jr. will now travel west with the Blue Jays for a week-long trip against the Dodgers and Mariners. If all goes well, he could even be in the lineup Tuesday.
“We’ll see how he feels,” Montoyo said.
If Guerrero Jr. misses just one game that would be great news for the Blue Jays, but if he needs more time the team can afford to be patient with its 20-year-old franchise player. Until he’s at full strength, there’s no reason to rush.