TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays wanted to extend Joe Biagini on Sunday, and by responding to the push in his fifth start since joining the rotation, the right-hander opened up some interesting possibilities over the next week.
That’s why the six strong innings and 95 pitches – both career bests – he threw during Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers can’t be viewed in isolation. Without doubt it was important for Biagini to break through and get deeper into games as his physical base becomes more geared toward starting, and he certainly did his part in trying to push the Blue Jays’ win streak past five games.
"I thought he did a nice job," praised manager John Gibbons. "Now, really, that’s all behind him, building him up. He’s good to go, treat him like anybody else."
But in leaving only three innings for the bullpen to cover ahead of a Marcus Stroman start Monday versus the Cincinnati Reds, the Blue Jays can feel more comfortable about potentially activating J.A. Happ, who was in the clubhouse post-game, from the disabled list to start Tuesday.
The left-hander, who threw 56 pitches in a rehab start Thursday at single-A Dunedin as he works his way back from elbow inflammation, might have no more than 65-70 pitches next time out. But since the options in Buffalo aren’t locks to log five innings and 100 pitches anyway, the Blue Jays might as well take what Happ can give them if the bullpen is in good shape.
How he feels after a side session Sunday is likely to be the determining factor on that front.
Keeping the bullpen from being overtaxed is important, too, with Francisco Liriano a possibility to return Friday from shoulder inflammation. The left-hander struck out seven over 4.1 innings, allowing three runs, two earned, on three hits and two walks while throwing 72 pitches in a rehab start for triple-A Buffalo at Charlotte, and barring setbacks, his next start will be against the New York Yankees.
"I’m ready" to rejoin the Blue Jays on Friday, Liriano said in a video interview posted by the Bisons on Twitter. "I’ve got to wait to see how I feel (Monday), besides that I think everything feels great."
In Aaron Sanchez’s continued absence – he hasn’t yet resumed throwing as he awaits a blood blister on his right middle finger to completely heal – Biagini will remain in the rotation and the Blue Jays will need more continued progress like they saw Sunday from him.
"C-plus, maybe B-minus, just considering my (expending) of pitches, a lot of room for improvement," is how Biagini characterized his outing. "I would definitely categorize it as a learning experience."
Relying more heavily on his curveball than in previous starts – he threw 24 hooks compared to 26 changeups and 35 fastballs – he navigated his way through seven hits and a walk over his six frames to allow only two runs on a Jonathan Lucroy RBI single in the third and a Joey Gallo solo shot in the fourth.
Over his past three starts Biagini’s curveball usage has gone from 12 per cent to 21 per cent to 25 per cent.
"Sometimes you stick with something that’s going well," said Biagini. "I didn’t feel like I was finishing my cutter very well today and so a breaking pitch had to take over and I’d been using the curveball a lot the last couple of games and I’m happy with the improvement of my control on that."
More importantly, he went through three full turns of the entire Rangers lineup, the first time he accomplished that, allowing just a single with four strikeouts during that span. Biagini struck out seven in total, getting five swinging strikes with his curveball and eight with his changeup.
"Generally when guys start getting third time through the lineup they’re building up pitches but I did think as the game went on he got stronger," said Gibbons. "He’s got the stuff to be a good starting pitcher and that’s developing."
The Blue Jays didn’t capitalize on his performance, however, as Andrew Cashner held them to a single run on Jose Bautista’s sacrifice fly in the first over seven solid innings, during which he allowed only five hits and two walks.
Keone Kela pitched the eighth and Matt Bush handled the ninth, allowing a pair of two-out singles before Troy Tulowitzki hit into a fielder’s choice on an 80 m.p.h. curveball after three fastballs at 99-100 m.p.h., to lock things down as the Rangers avoided a sweep before a Rogers Centre crowd of 46,188.
"We just couldn’t get anything going," said Gibbons.
On the mound, though, Biagini did, and he and the Blue Jays are primed to reap the rewards.
"It was important for me to see myself be able to handle the workload, continuing to expand," he said. "I was kind of surprised when I asked how many pitches I had at the end of the sixth inning, I felt like my arm was better conditioned for it, and didn’t feel quite as much of a tanking drop-off where you start to go, ‘OK, the ball is taking off on me and I really have to be disciplined to adjust.’"