TORONTO – John Schneider, tell us that Alek Manoah is starting the wild-card series opener without telling us that Alek Manoah is starting the wild-card series opener.
“May have made (the decision) last night,” the interim manager, his voice a touch raspy from the previous night’s clinch party, said Saturday before a 10-0 Toronto Blue Jays pounding of the Boston Red Sox. “It's great to have options. And we would feel really good with him on the mound in Game 1 of a wild-card series.”
Rightly so, and at this point it’s hard to fathom the Blue Jays using him on turn in next Wednesday’s regular-season finale, thereby ruling him out of the wild-card round, even if home-field advantage is on the line.
Given that Yusei Kikuchi followed the big righty with three innings and 45 pitches of relief Friday, a good platform outing ahead of a start, it certainly looks like the Japanese lefty is set up for Game 162, locking Manoah in for Oct. 7.
“You’re getting good, man,” quipped Schneider. “It definitely gives you that option. (Kikuchi) has the ability to do that. So, yeah, it definitely gives you another option, for sure.”
Options aside, a second straight beatdown of the Red Sox moved the Blue Jays (89-69) closer to rendering the whole Manoah-to-lock-up-home-field-advantage discussion moot, shrinking their magic number to four over the Seattle Mariners (87-70), who beat Oakland 5-1, and two on the Tampa Bay Rays (86-72), who were at Houston.
In some ways, the more intriguing discussion right now is about who should start in Game 2 of the wild-card round. And as is their way, the Blue Jays have left themselves options on that front, too, with both Ross Stripling and Kevin Gausman set up for the occasion.
Based on the current rotation order, Stripling, who threw six shutout innings to close out a strong regular season that was vital to the club’s success, would actually be on turn to follow Manoah in the wild-card round, with Gausman to follow.
That gives the Blue Jays the flexibility to be creative, like using Stripling in Game 2 to try and close out a series with Gausman ready to start the first game of the division series if they win the opener, or going Gausman to try and force a decisive third contest should they drop Game 1.
Back in the 2020 post-season, the Blue Jays showed they aren’t afraid to make unorthodox calls by pushing Hyun Jin Ryu back to the second game of their series against the Tampa Bay Rays, dropping Taijuan Walker to an if-necessary Game 3 for a Matt Shoemaker/Robbie Ray piggyback in the opener.
There’s peril in getting too cute during the post-season, of course, beginning with the possibility of disrupting the routines of their starters.
But a two-game sweep with Stripling starting the second game would at least give the Blue Jays a chance to optimize for the division series, with Gausman in Games 1 and 4, Manoah handling Game 2 and options on Stripling/Jose Berrios for Games 3 and 5.
If Gausman pitches Game 2 with Stripling in Game 3 to advance, Berrios ends up lined up for 1 and 5 if needed in the division series with Manoah, Gausman and Stripling in between.
A flip of the Manoah and Gausman spots in the above scenarios is also on the menu of options for the Blue Jays, all of which put an enormous amount of importance on Game 1, and underscores the importance of Stripling, whose emergence helped underpin the club’s success.
“How much he's helped us goes unnoticed sometimes,” said Schneider. “Today was the best capper for what he's been doing all year.”
Starting the season in the bullpen until Hyun Jin Ryu’s season-ending elbow injury, the pending free agent ended up posting career-bests in starts (24), innings (136.1), earned-run average (3.01) and WHIP (1.005). Against the Red Sox, he scattered four hits and didn’t allow anything resembling a rally.
“Mostly staying healthy, and physically, this is probably the best I've felt in the months of August and September, which have always been my hardest months,” Stripling said when asked what he's happiest about. “As I approached a workload that I’ve never had before, I'm still really happy with the way I feel and to finish on a strong note like that and carry that into the post-season feels good for sure.”
The offence, meanwhile, banged out 21 hits before a Rogers Centre crowd of 44,612 and the real victory for the Red Sox is that they managed to avoid an even less flattering scoreline.
Teoscar Hernandez, who had four hits, and Danny Jansen, with three knocks, both went deep, every Blue Jays starter reached and after Bo Bichette went 4-for-4, Otto Lopez hit for him in the seventh and collected his first major-league hit, a groundball single up the middle.
On a personal level, Jansen said he’s felt calmer in big-game moments this year and believes the experience of last year’s one-game-short post-season chase has helped the team as a whole stay more even-keeled.
“When we're at our best – that's where we're at,” said Jansen. “The offence can put up numbers like today and do these things. We have full trust in our bullpen and the rotation. It's about just trying to be calm and knowing that we can do it.”
No day-after hangover for them, just another step toward the wild-card round and in sorting out their array of options and possibilities.