TORONTO – Amid this trying period of hard knocks are some critical days of discovery for the Toronto Blue Jays. Important decisions loom in the weeks ahead on how to reinforce a talented team with obvious needs, and the front office must need to be sure about what’s in place before cashing in some of the farm system’s prospect capital.
Perhaps most pivotal in that regard is Alek Manoah, who allowed two runs over five fighting-through-it innings before the Blue Jays rallied with an opportunistic eighth in Wednesday’s 6-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
The rookie right-hander made his third start in the majors, and after dominating the New York Yankees in a brilliant debut and then grinding through an off-kilter outing versus the Miami Marlins, his performance against the AL Central leaders is perhaps the most instructive.
Manager Charlie Montoyo’s prime takeaway?
“That he can pitch in the big-leagues,” he replied. “He battled. I mean, that’s a good team he was facing and he gave us a chance. Of course he did throw a lot of pitches and he only went five. But that was good. And when he got in trouble, he made big pitches when he had to. He did an outstanding job.”
While Manoah’s four-seam fastball was overpowering, generating eight whiffs on 19 swings, and his slider had its moments, he wasn’t at his best, losing his command at times while coming in and out of his delivery.
Despite that, he kept one of the AL’s best offences largely under wraps, allowing an unearned run in the first when Yoan Moncada cashed in Jake Lamb, who reached on a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. error, and then another in the fifth when Nick Madrigal’s double plated a Leury Garcia leadoff walk.
“Threw a lot of heaters in, heaters up and they’re really aggressive, really good young lineup, hit the ball extremely hard,” said Manoah. “So the plan was just like, hey, let’s throw that heater. Let’s kind of get them a little excited and then we’ll start breaking off some breaking balls later in the game.”
Providing support was Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who threw out Yasmani Grandal trying to score on an Andrew Vaughn single to end the fourth, with an assist to a seemingly sketch replay decision that let the play stand.
Regardless, the intriguing 23-year-old never let the game unravel and it easily could have in the fifth, when Madrigal’s double put the White Sox ahead 2-1 with none out. Manoah, after trading some words with Tim Anderson, got the star shortstop on a flyout, struck out Lamb and popped up Moncada to hold the line.
“He already got the double, run is already in, it’s about minimizing those situations and maximizing the good ones,” said Manoah. “I was just able to make some pitches right there. Tim Anderson is a hell of a competitor. He’s there competing as hard as he can. He’s trying to win a ballgame for his team. And I’m on the other side doing the same thing. It’s extremely exciting and extremely fun to go out there and compete with guys like that.”
There was a lot in his outing to demonstrate what he’s made of, and the Blue Jays very much need him to help maintain the recent stability in the rotation.
“I didn’t notice a change in mannerism or anything like that when things got tough,” said Bo Bichette, who went 3-for-5 including a pivotal single that loaded the bases in the eighth. “He stayed the same, continued to compete. That’s what he does. He competes every time he’s out there, which is fun to play behind. I was really impressed with him.”
As the starters have settled, the depleted bullpen has become all the more uncertain, which is what made clean innings from Anthony Castro and Tyler Chatwood heartening.
Castro, with an opportunity to earn more leverage work, was up to 98.4 m.p.h. and all three swings at his whiffle-ball sliders were misses, while Chatwood turned the page on some recent command issues by throwing nine of his 12 pitches for strikes in an efficient seventh.
“He looked like the Chatwood that we saw in the first month and a half,” said Montoyo.
Those frames helped set the stage for the rally in the eighth, which was started by pinch-hitter Riley Adams reaching on a wild-pitch strikeout.
Adams eventually came around on Guerrero’s bases-loaded walk off Aaron Bummer to tie the game 2-2, and the Blue Jays plated two more when Anderson threw away the relay on what should have been a double-play ball from Teoscar Hernandez.
“We always think we have a chance,” said Bichette, who scored the fourth run. “It was just about continuing to put together good at-bats and that’s all we can control.”
Adams, who debuted Tuesday, remained in the game at catcher and when Jordan Romano’s first five pitches of the eighth were not-even-close balls, he visited the mound to settle the right-hander down. Romano did just that, popping up Lamb, striking out Moncada and getting Jose Abreu on a groundout to strand Anderson at third base.
That’s a pressure-packed spot for Adams to jump in, but he’s looked very strong behind the plate thus far, capably blocking balls, while providing a big target with nice quiet movements.
“We didn’t send him, he did it on his own,” Montoyo said of Adams’ mound visit. “For him to do that, he’s relaxed, like he’s been here before. You don’t teach that.”
This is an important look for Adams, as the Blue Jays will have some surplus at catcher once Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, due to begin a rehab assignment, are ready to return.
After Rowdy Tellez’s single made it a 5-2 game in the ninth, Adams followed with a walk and slid hard into second base to break up a potential double-play ball from Marcus Semien, and Danny Mednick’s high throw off Abreu’s glove allowed Tellez to score from second.
The collective combination of attention to detail and opportunism after a handful of White Sox miscues is encouraging for the Blue Jays, especially after squandering a Robbie Ray gem in the series opener. One night later, they turned the tables after Lance Lynn shoved for seven innings, learning more about their evolving roster along the way.