Another rough outing for Gausman raises more questions for Blue Jays

Watch as Colorado Rockies' Kris Bryant hits a two-run double to cash in a pair, and forces the Blue Jays to end Kevin Gausman's night in just the fourth inning.

TORONTO – Perhaps expecting Kevin Gausman to jump into the regular season at full speed after just one Grapefruit League start was unrealistic. After all, spring training is the long slog that it is solely for pitchers to build up progressively, with margin for error, under the understanding that rarely do results arrive on-demand. There’s arm strength to regain, mechanics to refine, rhythm to be honed and bad days don’t matter one iota.

Gausman enjoyed precious little of that, but a dominant performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates followed by 4.1 boffo innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in his regular-season debut suggested it may not matter. Then his velocity fell off in a blame-it-on-the-cold thumping from the New York Yankees followed by Friday’s stuff-is-back-execution-is-not mess in a 12-4 Colorado Rockies beatdown. Suddenly, the Toronto Blue Jays ace has some things to figure out.

“Obviously I wish I was eight starts in right now, but I’m at four,” said Gausman. “That’s unfortunate and it’s frustrating, but I also kind of got to give myself a little bit of grace when it comes to that. But it is frustrating. All I want to do is go out there and pitch the way I know how and dominate. Wanted to pitch well first start at home this year, too, but it didn’t happen. It wasn’t good. On to the next one.”

First, there will be some making sense of this one, and as weird as things were in the Bronx, when his fastball averaged 91.6 m.p.h. and his splitter was 82.5, this one may have been even more bizarre.

Though he generated 18 whiffs with his fastball back sitting at 93.9 m.p.h. and up to 96.3, while his splitter averaged 86.4 m.p.h., the Rockies were all over him for six runs on 10 hits in 3.2 innings. This wasn’t solely a BABIP luck type of day either, as eight balls put in play against him left the bat at 98.8 or above.

And it’s not like they were sitting on one pitch.

In the second, singles by Elias Diaz and Elehuris Montero and a Brendan Rodgers double that erased an early 1-0 Blue Jays lead all came off fastballs. In the third, Ezequiel Tovar’s leadoff single and Ryan McMahon’s RBI double that tied the game 2-2 came off splitters, Diaz’s go-ahead RBI single later in the inning came on a slider while Nolan Jones’ RBI double, making it 4-2 for the visitors, was off another fastball.

Kris Bryant’s two-run double in the fourth, on the last of Gausman’s 78 pitches, was also on a slider. The Rockies did damage against him all over the zone, as the hit chart below shows.

So New York wasn’t all about stuff and stuff didn’t cure-all against the Rockies, leaving something in the execution bucket to resolve.

“I think I kind of got away from throwing the fastball a little bit, stayed in that medium speed maybe a little too much, too many sliders,” said Gausman, adding later: “They obviously pieced together a lot of really good at-bats, but I still felt like I had good stuff. That’s why the swing and miss was there, the strikes were there but obviously the hits are frustrating.”

When Gausman is on, of course, he doesn’t need to be at peak velocity, as he showed on April 6 at Kansas City last year, when he averaged 91.3 on his heater and 82.8 on the split but still threw six shutout innings with seven strikeouts.

Still, the recent flux may be nothing more than Gausman still being in spring training and it’s simply a matter of reps before he’s back to himself. But to have him chasing his season with flux elsewhere in the rotation is far from optimal.

“When you’re playing the regular season, it’s execute or get beat, you know what I mean?” said manager John Schneider. “So I think tonight was just that.”

Gausman’s short outing meant both Paolo Espino (2.2 innings) and Mitch White (two innings) had to eat up some garbage time frames. Since Espino has options left, he seems likely to be optioned Saturday for Yariel Rodriguez, who was up on the taxi squad Friday.

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The Cuban right-hander will start Saturday and seems destined to be paired with Bowden Francis, who was originally slated to take the ball and will be available in the bullpen.

Rodriguez is coming off a lost year while transitioning to North America so the Blue Jays are carefully managing his workload, meaning he joins the staff with strings attached.

The Cuban right-hander seems destined to be paired with Bowden Francis, listed as the probable starter for Saturday, as the Blue Jays seek to manage his workload after a lost year transitioning to North America, so he’ll join the staff with strings attached.

“We really have to remember the big picture with him and the number of innings, so his role could be a little bit fluid,” said manager John Schneider, adding later that a piggyback “makes sense when you’re looking at that spot in the rotation, for sure. We’ll probably roll it out with some kind of consistency. But it is a nice little tandem there. Nice little duo.”

All of which makes Alek Manoah’s rehab outing Saturday at triple-A Buffalo all the more important, since there’s a clear pathway for him back to the rotation and a need for him to be good.

Given how his last rehab outing went – when he allowed seven runs, six earned, on five hits and four walks in 1.2 innings for low-A Dunedin – rushing him back probably isn’t wise. But if he can regain his form, he could help provide more stability for a Blue Jays rotation that can use some.

Nothing will be as stabilizing as Gausman pitching like the ace he is, though. He may be experiencing nothing more than a spring blip, taking place in the regular season, because of a truncated camp. The Blue Jays can only hope it doesn’t last long.

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