TORONTO – Much has changed since the last time Matt Shoemaker started a major-league game. Back on April 20, 2019, the day Shoemaker tore his ACL at the Oakland Coliseum, the Blue Jays’ roster still included Socrates Brito and Alen Hanson. It did not yet include Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette or Cavan Biggio, all of whom were still in triple-A.
In the 15 months since, Shoemaker has rehabbed an ACL injury, prepared for a season that would be delayed by a pandemic, navigated negotiations with MLB owners and ramped up all over again – this time for a shortened schedule. It’s been busy, but there hasn’t been baseball.
Facing the Rays at Tropicana Field on Saturday, Shoemaker finally had the chance to pitch for the first time since tearing his ACL. For six innings he did his part, allowing just one earned run on three hits thanks to an effective splitter, slider and two-seam fastball.
But two innings after Shoemaker’s departure, manager Charlie Montoyo turned to reliever Sam Gaviglio in a 1-1 game, and a three-run rally deflated the Blue Jays’ hopes of starting this abbreviated season 2-0.
To be fair, Montoyo’s bullpen was taxed heavily on Friday, when Jordan Romano, Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis and Ken Giles all pitched in the season opener. All three setup relievers were unavailable Saturday. But Gaviglio, who topped out at 90 m.p.h., was no match for the Rays’ hitters, who rallied for three runs and set up a 4-1 Rays win.
“He didn’t have it,” Montoyo acknowledged afterward, regarding Gaviglio. “He wasn’t locating his stuff. He’s usually very good, he just didn’t locate his pitches and he paid the price.”
Beyond the bullpen, there were plenty of positives for the Blue Jays on Saturday. Infielder Santiago Espinal made his MLB debut, starting at third base and going hitless in two at-bats. Catcher Reese McGuire hit a solo home run in the seventh inning to tie the game, 1-1. And even though Shoemaker’s first start of the year didn’t end in a win, it offered proof that his recovery is indeed complete.
“It’s exciting to say the least,” Shoemaker said. “We’re finally back to baseball. Obviously it’s different circumstances, but building back up, getting back ready and finally getting out there back where we all want to be, it was exciting to say the least. The adrenaline was flowing.”
With no fans allowed in the stands due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience of watching a baseball game has changed dramatically in recent months. Shoemaker felt the difference on Friday when he watched Hyun-Jin Ryu pitch the Blue Jays’ season opener. But one day later, he was too focused on the Rays hitters to dwell on the absence of a crowd.
“We want fans in the stands, we want sold-out crowds,” he said. “We build off of that. So it’s definitely different, but just from a personal pitching standpoint, if I’m locked in and focused and tunnel vision, I don’t even notice.”
After opening the season with two veteran starters, the Blue Jays will turn to a rookie in Sunday’s series finale. Thomas Hatch, a 25-year-old right-hander who impressed Blue Jays decision makers in training camp, will make his MLB debut with fellow rookie Anthony Kay likely to follow after a couple of innings.
Both pitchers were acquired at last summer’s trade deadline, with Hatch arriving from the Cubs in the David Phelps trade and Kay arriving from the Mets in the Marcus Stroman trade. Less than a year later, they’re already contributing at the MLB level against Rays left-hander Blake Snell, who’s slated for a relatively short outing on Sunday.
A strong finish at double-A raised Hatch’s prospect stock (2.80 ERA, 34 strikeouts compared to two walks in six starts), but under ordinary circumstances the next step would have been triple-A. With no minor-league season and expanded rosters, a path to the Blue Jays opened up.
“We think he’s going to be really good and think he’s going to be with us for a long time,” Montoyo said.
The Blue Jays have yet to announce their rotation plans beyond Sunday, but Montoyo hinted that left-hander Ryan Borucki would likely be activated soon. That will require opening up a roster spot, and the return of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the lineup means Billy McKinney could be optioned to make room if needed.
Relatively speaking, those are small-scale decisions. Big picture, the long-awaited return of Shoemaker represented a positive development for a team counting on significant improvement from its pitching staff.
“He looked really good,” Montoyo said. “That’s what we’ve seen the last couple of years now. He was outstanding. He probably gave up a couple of hard-hit balls. He was really good. I’m really happy with his outing.”