Pearson creates options as Blue Jays stay ‘open-minded’ with pitching

Hazel Mae looks at the 2020 season for the playoff-bound Blue Jays, which saw the team deal with everything from playing in Buffalo instead of Toronto to losing star players to injury.

TORONTO – All it took was three pitches for Nate Pearson to remind the Toronto Blue Jays what they’ve been missing for the last five weeks.

Pearson’s first pitch of the night, a called strike at the knees to Austin Hays of the Baltimore Orioles, was clocked at 100.1 m.p.h. His second pitch was a slider that broke sharply as it neared the plate and induced a swing and miss for strike two. And even though his third pitch was well above the top of the strike zone, it was going 101.5 m.p.h. Hays swung and missed again.

With that one at-bat, Pearson eased some of the concerns about the elbow tightness that had sidelined him since Aug. 18 and renewed optimism about what he can offer the Blue Jays in the playoffs. His return was one of many positives for a team that suddenly has the luxury of prioritizing next week’s wild-card series over immediate results. Of course, it never hurts to win, either, and the Blue Jays did so with ease Friday, beating the Orioles 10-5 in the opener of their final series of the season at Sahlen Field.

The offence kept coming for the Blue Jays, who got home runs from Randal Grichuk and Travis Shaw, but most of the intrigue exists on the pitching staff as the season winds down. Before the game, general manager Ross Atkins said the Blue Jays are considering “some alternative strategies” as they lay out their pitching for next week’s three-game playoff series.

“As you’ve seen over the course of the year, we haven’t taken the most traditional approach,” Atkins said. “We’ll continue to be open-minded.”

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At this point, nothing has been finalized, not even a Game 1 start for Hyun Jin Ryu. And with that in mind, the intentionally abbreviated, three-inning appearance by Taijuan Walker in his final start of the season is of particular interest. Walker retired all nine batters he faced while striking out five on 42 pitches.

It was an impressive outing, and one that could theoretically open up the possibility of a Game 1 start Tuesday. If nothing else, it served its purpose of allowing Walker to get some work in without overexerting himself.

“I felt really good,” Walker said. “I thought everything was good and sharp. I was throwing strikes, which is the No. 1 goal every time I go out there.”

But after throwing a season-high 100 pitches in the Blue Jays’ clinching win, Ryu was “a little sore” Friday, according to manager Charlie Montoyo. With that in mind, it’s possible the Blue Jays will look to get him an additional day of rest ahead of his first playoff start.

In theory, the Blue Jays could bump Ryu to Game 2 and use some combination of Walker and Robbie Ray in Game 1 (Ryu has excelled on both four and five days’ rest, though his strikeout to walk numbers are better with an extra recovery day). Of course, that’s just one possibility among many, and none of this needs to be finalized just yet. At this point, the Blue Jays can simply wait to find out their opponent while plotting different paths ahead and asking the pitchers themselves how they’re feeling.

“We feel like we don’t have the prototypical five starters that some teams do, but we do have some very interesting options that we want to make sure that we think through and exhaust every potential angle,” Atkins said.

The return of Pearson certainly opens up options for the Blue Jays, even if he’ll be limited to relatively short stints from this point onward. He averaged 99 m.p.h. during his 24-pitch outing Friday, striking out two batters while allowing a hit and a walk over 1.2 innings. If he can replicate that in the post-season, the Blue Jays will be thrilled.

“He’s a big boy. A really big boy,” said Walker, who’s listed at six-foot-four, 235 pounds. himself. “I’m excited to watch him for us in the post-season. He’s going to be one of those weapons that I think no one really knows about. He’s going to come in and just light up the radar gun and get big outs.”

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Beyond the radar gun, Pearson also passed some other tests that go along with his new role. He warmed up in the bullpen during the game, rather than before it. And his night spanned two innings to prepare him for a multi-inning role in the post-season.

“It felt amazing,” Pearson said. “It felt really good to be back to myself out there.”

The bullpen could soon get another power arm back as Jordan Romano “looked really good” in a bullpen session Friday, according to Montoyo. An appearance in Sunday’s season finale remains a possibility, or the Blue Jays could simply add Romano to the post-season roster without using him in a game first.

As for the rotation, Matt Shoemaker will look to build on a strong return from the injured list Saturday and Tanner Roark will pitch Sunday. An extended outing for Roark in the season finale would presumably eliminate him from consideration from the wild-card round roster, allowing the Blue Jays to create room for another player (Atkins expects a bigger bench in the wild-card round, and 13-15 pitchers).

In the meantime, the wheels keep turning for Blue Jays decision-makers. At some point soon, it’ll be time to make some final calls on how they structure their pitching staff in the playoffs. For now, all that’s clear is they have one more impact arm to work with after Pearson’s impressive return.

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