ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the final week of the 2016 season, as the Toronto Blue Jays fought tooth and nail to secure a wild-card berth, they got into a brawl with the New York Yankees. Luis Severino buzzed Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ hit Chase Headley, Severino hit Justin Smoak and then, it was time to rumble.
Things got wild and during the fracas, Joaquin Benoit tore his calf running in from the bullpen and Devon Travis tweaked his shoulder. The Blue Jays were fortunate no one was suspended.
Given that the ill feelings created by Kevin Kiermaier picking up Alejandro Kirk’s catcher card after it became dislodged during a play at the plate the previous night could have spun out of control Tuesday, that 2016 fracas offers a timely cautionary tale.
Alek Manoah could certainly have settled a score by throwing at the Tampa Bay Rays outfielder, as demanded so often in the social media discourse after video of the incident dropped. But a much better outcome for the Blue Jays is the double-play ball and two strikeouts Manoah got from Kiermaier during a 4-2 win that’s of far more value right now than any schoolyard vengeance.
In recognizing what’s really at stake for his team, the 23-year-old rookie delivered a steely performance that belies his age, working around five hits and six walks to allow only two runs in six innings. The Rays threatened in all but one of the six frames against him yet Manoah, pitching in the pennant-race pressure-cooker for the first time, made key pitch after key pitch to keep a tension-filled game under control.
“A lot of these big games, you can try to overamp yourself or try and do things different to go out there and have a stellar outing,” Manoah said of his approach. “But sometimes just staying within yourself, staying within your routine and trusting the game plan is the biggest thing.”
So was keeping their cool in tight spots, as the Blue Jays issued 11 walks overall, five coming during high leverage eighth and ninth innings.
After Tim Mayza handled a clean seventh, Trevor Richards survived two walks in the eighth and then Jordan Romano walked the bases loaded in the ninth before locking down the win. The Blue Jays (85-66) remained a half-game up on the New York Yankees (85-67), 7-1 winners over Texas, for the second wild card, while the Boston Red Sox (87-65) are still 1.5 games up for first spot after a 6-3 win over the New York Mets.
“This kid competes,” Montoyo said of Manoah. “He competes and he competes and he doesn't melt down when he gets in trouble. He makes big pitches when he has to and that's what he did today. He was in trouble most of the game, but he came back and made big pitches to keep us in the game.”
Adding to the unlikelihood for shenanigans is that Manoah was suspended earlier this season after Major League Baseball ruled that he threw intentionally at Maikel Franco during a June 19 game at Baltimore. Considering that Hyun Jin Ryu is already on the injured list – he long-tossed before the game and is on track to start Tuesday’s opener against the Yankees in Toronto – the Blue Jays could not have him risk discipline for a pointless pound of flesh.
Though he issued the six walks, they were of the competitive variety against a pesky and disciplined lineup. There was none of the erratic command stuff that’s led to 12 hit batters so far, ensuring there were no potential misunderstandings.
Mostly, Manoah was in battle mode, as Brandon Lowe and Ji-Man Choi reached to open the first, forcing a gutty escape from the outset. Lowe’s RBI single in the second opened the scoring and after Brevic Valera’s RBI groundout in the third and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s solo shot in the fifth put the Blue Jays up 2-1, Joey Wendle’s single in the fifth knotted things up.
The Rays went 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position against Manoah.
“I'm not scared to pitch with runners on base,” he said. “I'm from the stretch 100 per cent of the time anyway, so I'm very comfortable from the stretch. We've kind of got to find that fine line between attacking and being stubborn and giving in. I respect everybody in that lineup. Sometimes when there's guys on base, a fastball over the plate, or a slider over the plate (versus) throwing a pitch an inch off and not getting a swing, I'd rather do that because I feel comfortable throwing guys on-base and just continuing to attack.”
Helping Manoah’s cause was Kirk throwing out Austin Meadows trying to steal second in the third and Teoscar Hernandez throwing out the DH trying for third on Wendle’s single in the fifth.
Some clever baserunning in the sixth helped set up the go-ahead run, as Marcus Semien smartly read that a soft Vladimir Guerrero Jr., single to left was going to drop and went first-to-third, while Guerrero alertly took second on the throw. Bo Bichette then put the Blue Jays up 3-2 while Hernandez’s RBI single in the eighth padded the margin.
“We had to play our A game to beat that team – that's a good team – and we did,” said Montoyo. “The baserunning was good, the offence was good, the defence was good and the pitching made the big pitches when they had to.”