TORONTO – Even in spring training, Alek Manoah showed signs that he could be an impact big-league starter. Rarely do pitchers strike out seven consecutive Yankees by accident, Grapefruit League schedule or not. But still, at that point he had yet to pitch a single inning above class A.
To emerge as a legitimate major league starter over the next five months is by no means the norm for pitchers arriving in the big-leagues. Yet by flashing frontline stuff, the way he did Wednesday in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 10-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels, Manoah’s becoming an increasingly important arm for the Jays as they continue their playoff push. And quite understandably, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in slowing him down.
Facing the Angels for the first time, Manoah struck out a career-best 11 hitters on a night his fastball consistently overmatched the opposition. He topped out at 97.2 m.p.h. and held his velocity into his final inning of work before leaving with two out in the seventh after a career-high 114 pitches. The Angels scored twice on Shohei Ohtani's MLB-leading 38th home run of the year but otherwise they were overmatched against the 23-year-old.
“I see myself as one of the best of the best, too,” Manoah said. “Being able to compete with guys like that and get guys out is what’s going to put me in that category. I’ll never back down from a challenge like that even if it ends in a home run.”
“I just really love baseball, man,” Manoah added. “I really love the game. I really enjoy throwing that little white ball.”
For a Blue Jays team that has now won 13 of its last 17, Manoah’s emergence counts as one of the most significant of the 2021 season. And as they look ahead, he figures to be a big part of their stretch run, even if he hasn’t yet pitched into September and October as a professional.
“I don’t look ahead,” Manoah said. “I’ve got enough on my plate every time I go out there. They pay those guys (from the front office and coaching staff) to make those decisions. My job is to go out there and throw that ball every time I get the chance and hopefully we go on a long run here.”
Five years ago, the last time a prized Blue Jays pitching prospect showed he could handle major-league hitters, Aaron Sanchez faced year-long scrutiny about his workload. He led the American League in ERA that year but the finger and blister issues in the seasons that followed prevented him from becoming the long-term rotation fixture the Blue Jays would have liked.
This time, the circumstances around Manoah are considerably different. While innings totals are an incomplete measure of a player’s workload and fatigue, it’s worth noting that while Sanchez pitched 192 regular season innings in 2016, Manoah has thrown just 77 between the majors and minors this year, well shy of his 2019 total of 125.1. At this point the Blue Jays don’t sound like a team eager to rein Manoah in.
“We’ll see,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It worked out in a good way when he got hurt, because it gave him that breather and the workload is not as bad right now. Right now he’s good to go. We’ll see. If we see that the workload gets too high, then we’ll probably bring him down. Less innings and stuff. But right now that worked out great in a way because he’s fine to go right now.”
The Blue Jays’ lineup supported Manoah with four home runs, including a solo shot from Lourdes Gurriel Jr., a grand slam from Teoscar Hernandez and two more home runs from George Springer who continues to be one of the hottest hitters in baseball.
Meanwhile, much of the lineup-related intrigue surrounded a hitter who has slowed down of late. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s recent struggles in mind (.195 average, .616 OPS for August entering play Thursday), the Blue Jays bumped him from second to third in a move Montoyo suggested might be temporary.
“As you guys know he’s struggling,” Montoyo said, using air quotes around that last word. “Just giving him a breather … I don’t know how long we’re going to stay with that one, but we felt like making that little move today.”
Shortstop Bo Bichette (shin contusions) was out of the lineup as he’s still feeling “really sore,” but Montoyo said a stint on the injured list wasn’t considered likely. If any lineup can withstand the absence of Bichette for a couple of days, it’s likely the Blue Jays, who can simply slot Marcus Semien at short while still enjoying a deep offence.
Before the game, the Blue Jays officially placed Ross Stripling on the injured list and recalled 28-year-old right-hander Connor Overton to take his place in the bullpen. After a night on which both Trevor Richards and Adam Cimber pitched two innings, the Blue Jays needed relief depth giving Overton the chance to arrive in the big-leagues seven years and 10 teams after being selected in the 15th round of the 2014 draft.
“He’s going to be our long guy,” Montoyo said. “He should be able to go multiple innings for sure. And it was fun today telling him ‘congrats, you’re active.’”
Overton’s debut will have to wait, as Tayler Saucedo and Brad Hand closed things out Wednesday to make sure an impressive night from Manoah resulted in yet another win.