On third base stood Pedro Florimon, the tying run. On second base stood Aaron Altherr, the winning run. And on first base stood Cesar Hernandez, who had just drawn the walk that sent Tepera’s manager walking toward the mound for a meeting.
As much as Tepera tried to tell himself that the two remaining outs he was seeking were no different from any others, he acknowledges “I had a little bit of anxiety built up.”
Understandably so for a pitcher struggling through his first save chance of the season, and especially after a 1-6 homestand that included some painful late-game losses. The Blue Jays were in no position to give away another game late, which led John Gibbons to the mound.
“I don’t want to play extra innings, that’s for damn sure,” Gibbons told his players. “I don’t want to lose.”
Tepera then struck out Rhys Hoskins looking, leaving the bases loaded with two out for Odubel Herrera.
“I felt a little bit relieved, no doubt,” Tepera said. “I felt I could attack a little more, and be aggressive.”
One pitch later, Herrera had grounded out to second and the Blue Jays had escaped with a 6-5 win made possible by a strong start from Sam Gaviglio.
Gaviglio has now pitched into the sixth inning in both of his starts, providing the Blue Jays with a steady rotation fill-in. He allowed just three runs over six innings Friday, and even added a double at the plate.
This performance should earn him a continued look as a starter for the time being. Even though Jaime Garcia returns to the Blue Jays’ rotation Saturday, there’s still a spot open with Marcus Stroman just starting to throw side sessions again as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. At this point, Gaviglio seems like the most compelling candidate the Blue Jays have.
“We got an outstanding outing out of Gaviglio,” Gibbons said. “We really did.”
Including his two relief appearances, he has pitched to a 2.30 ERA with 18 strikeouts and just four walks over 15.2 innings. In contrast to Joe Biagini, who’s in limbo now that Garcia’s healthy, he works notably quickly. When Gaviglio’s on he’ll challenge hitters with sinkers and sliders at the bottom of the strike zone. So far, that’s been working well for the 28-year-old.
Granted, there’s no guarantee Gaviglio can sustain his success. It’s not that his performance this year is worrisome – he posted a 1.86 ERA in five triple-A starts before his success in the majors – but rather how he gets there.
Gaviglio topped out at 88.9 m.p.h. Friday, averaging 87.2 m.p.h. with his two-seam fastball. Around baseball you just don’t see that many right-handed starting pitchers who throw that softly. There are certainly some, and if Gaviglio can continue replicating the success of Kyle Hendricks, Bartolo Colon or Mike Leake, the Blue Jays will be thrilled.
“The guys that can locate it, there’s been a lot of good pitchers in the history of the game that don’t necessarily throw hard,” Gibbons said. “Some of the biggest winners ever. But they pitch, and they pitch. That’s what he does. He’s very confident and he’s getting his opportunity here.”
It’s just that when Gaviglio does leave a ball up, opposing hitters are better positioned to hit it a long way. That happened twice Friday, as pitcher Zach Eflin and first baseman Carlos Santana both went deep off of Gaviglio. To his credit, though, he allowed just one other hit and two walks while striking out six.
Though Gaviglio had some experience hitting as a St. Louis Cardinals prospect, he wanted all the help he could get for his first plate appearances of the 2018 season. Before the game, he asked Teoscar Hernandez what he’d likely see from Eflin if he found himself in a two-strike count.
“I knew there was probably a good chance of [falling behind]” Gaviglio said.
Sure enough, he fell behind 0-2, but thanks to his discussion with Hernandez he wasn’t surprised by the 1-2 slider Eflin threw. He took it for a ball and hit the next pitch into left field for a double.
With a lead in hand and three innings to go, Gibbons had nine outs to get from a bullpen that’s been shaky of late. On Saturday, the Athletics scored five in the eighth in a game the Blue Jays lost 5-4. On Wednesday, the Angels scored four in the ninth in a game the Blue Jays lost 5-4. For a moment, the Blue Jays appeared to be headed for another painful loss.
As Gibbons said, “It’s been a tough stretch for this team.”
But Seung-hwan Oh and Tyler Clippard kept things close and Tepera got those elusive last three outs. It added up to a much-needed win for the Blue Jays, one that wouldn’t have been possible without some effective starting pitching – and a nerve-racking first save of the season for Tepera.
“We desperately needed that,” Gibbons said. “We needed to close that one out and he did it. I’m proud of him.”