Blue Jays gain ground on Rays with dominant Manoah back from suspension

Toronto Blue Jays rookie pitcher Alek Manoah sets franchise record with seven straight strikeouts in his start against the Tampa Bay Rays.

So toothless and easily out-maneuvered is MLB’s disciplinary system that Alek Manoah, suspended five games last week for intentionally throwing at Baltimore Orioles third baseman Maikel Franco, barely missed a turn in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. Utilize Monday’s off-day, plus Steven Matz’s return from the COVID-19 injury list, and — presto! — there was Manoah taking the hill on Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays exactly five games after his last appearance, a not-uncommon gap between outings for a young starter still establishing himself at the big-league level.

Truth be told, the Blue Jays likely didn’t mind Manoah getting an extra day’s rest in his first full season as a professional starting pitcher. The most innings he’s thrown in a single season are the 125.1 he pitched in 2019 between his final year of college at West Virginia University and his first in Toronto’s system with the Vancouver Canadians. Manoah’s only halfway to that mark so far in 2021 — he entered Friday’s start with 64.2 innings pitched between spring training, triple-A, and the majors — which makes it a little early to be thinking too intently about his workload. But it’s still important to remember the difference in demands.

For as comfortable and belonging as he’s looked on the mound through his first half-dozen MLB starts, pitching at this level is still new for Manoah and there are a thousand beneath-the-surface aspects of it that he’s learning on the fly. Little things like when to show up for the team bus; what time to be on the field for national anthems; how long is customary to stick around in the dugout and support teammates after completing a start. And big stuff like how to optimize his between-outing throwing to maximize strength and endurance on start day; when to get his lifts in and how hard to push himself under the bar; what information to utilize from scouting reports and how to synthesize it into an executable game plan.

That’s the stuff we don’t see — the hard work cameras don’t catch. But it’s just as integral to Manoah’s success at baseball’s highest level as the horizontal break on his wipeout slider or the carry on his sneaky-good 94-m.p.h. fastball, which has produced an impressive 32 per cent whiff rate this season. And Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo says Manoah’s routines off the field have been consistent with his early-career success on it.

"What you see outside, it’s what he does inside. He feels like he belongs. He thinks he belongs. And that's one of the first steps to be successful in the big leagues — you have to think that you can do it," Montoyo said. "And that's what he does. When he takes the mound, he feels like he can get anybody out."

Which is essentially what Manoah did Friday against the Rays — get anybody and everybody out. He was dominant, filthy, overpowering. He was as good as he’s been in his rookie season, in his brief professional career, maybe in his life. He threw seven scoreless innings, allowing only three hits and a walk while striking out 10 with 23 swinging strikes, helping the Blue Jays gain ground on the Rays in the American League East race with an 11-1 victory. He was righteous.

“I think, honestly, that rest helped him out,” Montoyo said. “He was sharp. That 94 was getting on the plate pretty quick. He was fun to watch today.”

What’s funny is Manoah couldn’t quite find a rhythm in his first inning, walking Ji-Man Choi and committing a balk when he caught a cleat on the mound during his delivery. But he was flashing premium stuff from the jump, getting Wander Franco to strike out on a slider and Austin Meadows to go down chasing a mean changeup, stranding Choi at second.

From there, Manoah strung together a franchise-record seven consecutive strikeouts and stampeded into the sixth inning having yet to allow a hit. He was landing sinkers on the inside black to right-handers for strikes. He was throwing first-pitch changeups and sliders in fastball counts. He got Francisco Mejia to strike out chasing a slider that hit him in the shin.

Did you see that? It hit him in the shin. That’s how devastating Manoah’s slider was on the night, as it started belt-high on the same plane as his fastball before frisbeeing down-and-away from right-handers or bee-lining for the back feet of lefties. It was the kind of overwhelming stuff hitters thought they wouldn’t have to contend with any longer now that foreign substance use is being properly policed. But Manoah, whose slider spin rate (around 2,300 RPM) has been below MLB average since his late-May call-up, evidently didn’t need any help.

“Early on it was real good for me. I had a real good few out of my hand for strikes early in the count and to put guys away late. So, I was like, ‘Hey, let's just keep throwing it until they can hit it,'” Manoah said of his slider. “Just throw it and attack with it. Don't try and place it. Don't try and back door it or back foot it or whatever the case may be. Just throw that thing. It's a really good pitch — just attack with it.”

Manoah didn’t allow so much as a well-hit ball until the sixth, when Kevin Kiermaier lined a first-pitch sinker straight at second baseman Marcus Semien, who calmly took flight to make a jumping grab over his head.

But baseball being baseball, the next hitter — Mejia, same dude who struck out getting hit by a pitch — served a soft flare into shallow centre, where Randal Grichuk laid out but couldn’t complete what would have been a spectacular catch, letting it drop in for the first hit Manoah allowed on the night. The ball came off Mejia’s bat at just 70-m.p.h. and travelled only 239-feet. But the box score still reads “double.”

That’s a tough way to lose a no-hitter on a night you’re featuring no-hit stuff. But if it bothered Manoah, he didn’t show it. He came back to get Brandon Lowe with another slider after showing the righty-masher four straight fastballs at different eye levels.

“To be honest with you, when Grich missed that ball in centre field and everybody started clapping, I was like, 'What are they clapping at? He missed it.' I had no clue what was going on,” Manoah said. “But then I looked up and I was like, 'Oh, that would have been cool.' I just felt really good. I was in a good rhythm tonight. I was able to attack and get ahead first pitch and let that defence work behind me.”

The only thing Manoah couldn’t control on the night was his pitch count, which elevated beyond triple digits in the seventh inning as the Rays put a couple runners on with singles and worked some determined plate appearances. But with his 109th pitch of the night, Manoah jammed Manuel Margot with a 94-m.p.h. fastball in his kitchen, finishing his night with a weak grounder to short.

That Manoah’s final pitch of the game was harder than his first is an encouraging sign from a young starter who struggled to maintain his velocity in a couple of starts last month. Surpassing 100 pitches for the first time since college, Manoah was hitting 94-95 in that seventh inning. And although his slider appeared to lose some bite, he was still locating it on the plate for strikes and threw Margot four consecutively before getting him out with his heater.

“It was easy for us today to let him throw 109 after all that time off,” Montoyo said. “We're not going to do that all the time. But today was the perfect time. He's pitching a great game, throwing a shutout. He was in control the whole time. He never had a tough inning. That's when you’ve got to be careful. There's a difference between 109 when you get in trouble all the time and 109 when you're just cruising, which he did today.”

Meanwhile, George Springer was bumped up to the clean-up spot on Friday, after hitting fifth for his first eight games since coming off the injured list. And he immediately made whoever was responsible for that decision look brilliant by sending the first pitch he saw — a 97-m.p.h. heater from Rays starter Luis Patino — over the wall in dead centre for a two-run shot.

“I was waiting for him to get hot," Montoyo said of moving Springer up in the lineup. "Just let him get going, get him at-bats, get him to be comfortable. And now, after watching him having good at-bats, we said, 'OK, that's the perfect timing to hit him clean-up behind Vladdy.'

“And now, I've got Teo behind Springer. So, they're all covered. If you don't want to pitch to Vlad, you're going to have to pitch to Springer. And the other way around with Springer. If you don't want to pitch to him, you've got Teo behind him. So, they're all protecting themselves and Teo's going to have a better chance to get RBIs. It works out great.”

And the Blue Jays kept adding in the second against Patino, an untested 21-year-old who did himself no favours by airmailing a ball into centre field while trying to start a double play on a Grichuk comebacker. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. doubled, Reese McGuire singled, Marcus Semien reached on a force out, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. singled as four more runs crossed the plate.

That was more than enough run support — never mind homers by Semien and Guerrero in the seventh — behind Manoah on the best night of his young career. No teams wants a player getting suspended, but an early big-league learning experience and an extra day’s rest seemed to do him some good.

And considering how ruthless he can be when he’s on, the Blue Jays will have to think carefully about how to manage Manoah’s workload over the back-half of the season to give him the best chance of being available to do something similar in September. And, the Blue Jays hope, October. Every good team’s looking for starting pitching at this time of year. But the really good teams find it from within.

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