MINNEAPOLIS – About 30 minutes before first pitch Sunday, Alek Manoah bounded up the dugout stairs at Target Field, made his way past the Twins’ mascot and headed for the outfield to prepare for a game with significant implications for the Toronto Blue Jays.
All of 18 games into his big-league career, the 23-year-old has far less pro experience than most pitchers entrusted with games this meaningful, but at some point during the last four months, he made the leap from unproven rookie to trusted big-game starter. And so nothing about the task ahead of Manoah seemed out of place as he headed for left-centre field with Airpods in and blue socks pulled up just below the knee.
"There's no need to do too much. Just stay within the routine. Stay with what's been working," Manoah said. "(But) every time I take the mound, in my head it's a must-win game."
By holding the Twins to just two runs over 5.2 innings of work Sunday afternoon, Manoah continued to show he’s capable of delivering results in big games on the way to a 5-2 win that earns the Blue Jays a series split in Minneapolis and adds intrigue to the final six games of the season.
Now 87-69, the Blue Jays gained a full game in the standings on the Boston Red Sox, who lost to the New York Yankees on Sunday night. That sets up a memorable final week of the season that begins Tuesday when the Yankees visit Rogers Centre.
"We love playing with each other. We believe in each other. And we think we’re the best team in baseball," Manoah said. "We’re going to go into that series and give it all we’ve got and try and come out on top."
"It's huge," added catcher Danny Jansen. "Going to 30,000 fans in Toronto and finishing our last six games at home, it's massive. It's going to be great."
Manoah kept the Twins off-balance all afternoon, mixing in hard sliders and four-seam fastballs to induce plenty of weak contact. He struck out eight while allowing six hits and throwing 102 pitches, the hardest of which was clocked at 95 m.p.h. on the radar gun.
"The way he goes about it, he doesn't ever seem like a rookie," Jansen said. "He goes out there and competes. He's an ultimate competitor. He never gives in ... he's a bulldog."
After Sunday, Manoah's season ERA sits at 3.35 in 104.2 innings making him a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. More importantly, he’s a pitcher the Blue Jays can continue to rely on as the games take on added meaning. His next start will come against the Baltimore Orioles on the final weekend of the season, and following that, team decision makers would have zero hesitation about using him in a playoff series.
"He's not nervous. He likes pitching in the big-leagues. He's got good stuff and we have a chance every time he takes the mound," manager Charlie Montoyo said. "And you know what? We forget he's a rookie because he's pitching like an older guy."
Offensively, the Blue Jays don’t look unstoppable anymore, but they’re scoring enough. They got started in the second inning when Jansen followed bloop hits from Corey Dickerson and Santiago Espinal with a three-run home run. Since returning from the injured list on Aug. 31, he has four home runs with an OPS over 1.100.
"My power’s always been to the pull side," Jansen said. "So I think it’s just me embracing that."
Three innings later, George Springer hit a solo home run – his second in as many games after struggling for much of September. Springer, who started at DH Sunday after playing consecutive games in centre field, also singled twice and walked on his way to his first three-hit game since Aug. 4.
In the eighth inning, a Teoscar Hernandez RBI double provided the bullpen with a little added breathing room, but they didn’t end up needing it. Tim Mayza and Adam Cimber both pitched scoreless innings before Jordan Romano entered and recorded a four-out save.
Now, even bigger tests await the Blue Jays, a team looking to build on last year, when they made the playoffs during the pandemic-shortened season only to be swept by the Rays in the first round.
After a brief stint on the injured list with a neck issue, Hyun Jin Ryu will return to the rotation Tuesday, to be followed by Jose Berrios and Robbie Ray. Meanwhile, Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s availability for the Yankees series remains in question after the left fielder got two stitches on his throwing hand in Minneapolis.
"It'll be a day to day deal, but the deal is it's a big cut where he grabs his bat, so we'll see," Montoyo said.
With the series split, the Blue Jays have officially finished up the road portion of a season that sometimes felt like one long road trip. Next up, a flight home and a week that will either end in bitter disappointment or lead to a hard-earned playoff berth.