TORONTO – It was just five years ago that the Blue Jays’ starting rotation was a source of enviable stability.
The 2016 team used just seven starters all year and five of them – Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada and R.A. Dickey – combined to start 152 games. It’s the kind of season managers and pitching coaches dream of in spring training.
Of course the current edition of the Blue Jays reminds us how rarely those plans come to fruition. With nine pitchers now on the injured list, the Blue Jays have already used 23 different arms, including 12 starters. But those depth contributors have produced time after time, and Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Phillies was another such example.
Anthony Kay pitched four scoreless innings at TD Ballpark, using an effective fastball that topped out at 96.2 m.p.h. while generating eight swinging strikes and 10 called strikes. But Kay was out of the game after 79 pitches and four innings, which means the Blue Jays’ rotation has still logged fewer innings than any American League team.
The Blue Jays hoped to get five innings from Kay, who was on a pitch count of about 80 after throwing 66 in his last start. Instead, they turned it over to the bullpen and Travis Bergen, A.J. Cole, Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Romano held the Phillies scoreless as the Blue Jays improved to 21-17 on the season.
“I wouldn’t call it stressful, because that’s just part of the job,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Yeah, you want your starters to go deeper. But after (Kay) we had it mapped out more or less and it worked out great.”
Whether it’s sustainable to ask so much of the bullpen is another question, but if nothing else the depth of the roster has improved to the point that the arms thrust into leverage roles have risen to the challenge more often than not.
Next up on that list will be Nick Allgeyer, a left-handed long man whose contract was officially selected Saturday with David Phelps (lat strain) moving to the 60-day injured list in a corresponding move. And while he’s only two starts into his triple-A career, all eyes are already on another potential reinforcement whenever he starts: right-handed pitching prospect Alek Manoah.
Of course unexpectedly strong pitching only gets you so far if your offence doesn’t do its part, but even with an effective Aaron Nola on the mound, the Blue Jays managed enough. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continued to hit like an elite offensive player with a 409-foot home run to right-centre field in the first inning.
“I never try to hit homers,” Guerrero Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “But I just try to put good contact on the ball and if it goes out, it goes out. So far it’s been good. Hopefully it continues.”
On the season, Guerrero Jr. now has 10 homers and a .308/.436/.579 slash line.
“Mentally it feels great,” Guerrero Jr. said. “But more than that, the way my teammates are playing right now, the way everybody’s playing and trusting each other.”
Case in point: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had two hits for the second consecutive night, including an RBI double. And while Gurriel Jr.’s season OPS of .530 remains well below league average, his manager sees signs that better results are ahead.
“Hitting the ball to right field,” Montoyo said. “That means he’s hitting the ball to both sides and seeing the ball longer and deeper. That’s the only way you can get out of slumps and he’s been doing that.”
Eventually, the return of George Springer will crowd the Blue Jays’ outfield and designated hitter mix further, but even though Springer is taking batting practice on the field and working through a running progression, there’s no clear timeline for him. In the meantime, there’s no reason not to play Gurriel Jr. most days and hope an extended hot streak is on the way.
“We all know he’s a good hitter, but he’s also a streaky hitter,” Montoyo said. “When he struggles he doesn’t really look good. He’s that guy where it looks worse than what it is, but when he gets it, he gets it and I know he’s getting it. I’ve got full confidence in him. He’s one of our best hitters.”
All told, it was another encouraging performance for the Blue Jays, who will wrap up the series Sunday with Robbie Ray on the mound against former teammate Chase Anderson. Considering how well Ray has pitched and the upcoming day off Monday, the Blue Jays would appear to be well-positioned for that game, but making such assumptions can be dangerous.
As Saturday’s game shows, there’s no plug-and-play mode for this team’s pitching staff. Partly, it’s a product of circumstances. Partly, it’s a reflection of how much the game has changed since 2016.
Regardless, Montoyo faces near-constant pressure to piece nine quality innings together every night. There’s stress inherent to that and it’s not much fun to watch those games if the pitchers aren’t good. But if they are? Then you can debate whether watching all those pitching changes is enjoyable, but tactically at least there’s something to be said for staying flexible inning to inning and game to game.
Six weeks into the season, it’s clear the Blue Jays have to do more mixing and matching than they would have hoped. At least it’s working well enough to ensure that when reinforcements do start to return, they’ll be joining a team that’s contending.