TORONTO – Ideally, the Toronto Blue Jays would have given Nate Pearson another outing or two at triple-A Buffalo before bringing him back to the majors. His first start with the Bisons showed promise — with eight strikeouts and one run allowed over 3.2 innings — as he works to lock down a tweak to his delivery, and the best time to transition a player is when he’s built some momentum in both process and performance.
Right now, however, these aren’t ideal times for the Blue Jays, who are moving deeper and deeper into survival mode amid an extended and hard-to-fathom period of roster churn. On Saturday, they selected the contract of reliever A.J. Cole, optioned fellow righty Ty Tice and transferred catcher Alejandro Kirk to the 60-day injured list, making space on the 40-man roster for Cole.
At 83 transactions for the season already and counting, the Blue Jays are essentially through their pitching depth, as once Pearson arrives they’ll have only three hurlers on the 40 not in the majors or on the injured list – Jeremy Beasley, Elvis Luciano and Tice. Under the circumstances, big-league need trumps finer-points development.
“I mean, we need the innings in the big-leagues right now and this is perfect timing for him (Sunday) to start,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s one of the main reasons we’re doing it. We’ll feel good about him coming here and starting the game.”
They’re feeling better after Steven Matz helped the acute need for rotation innings with five solid frames in an 8-4 win over the Houston Astros to put them in position to win a series on Sunday. The left-hander shook off a pair of rough outings to cruise through the first three before giving up a two-run homer to Yordan Alvarez in the fourth and an RBI single to the slugger in the fifth, leaving the Blue Jays up 5-3.
A battered bullpen that had logged 18.1 innings over the previous five games of the current road trip could have used more, but the few available arms managed to finish the job. Tyler Chatwood delivered two clean, dominant innings to keep the game under wraps, Jordan Romano allowed an Alex Bregman double that came around when facing the heart-of-the-order in the eighth and after Marcus Semien’s three-run homer, Travis Bergen cleaned up the ninth.
“It was the biggest win of the year, in my opinion, with everything that’s happened and all the injuries and stuff … I’m really happy about it,” Montoyo said. “I had Cole and (Joel) Payamps if something went wrong, like long guys if you need three or four innings. But in a winning situation, that’s all we had. When Matz went five, I already knew, Chatwood is going to have to go two, and then Romano’s got the eighth and Bergen is going to have the ninth inning. I have trust in Bergen and he was really good.”
The victory was the latest moment to highlight a resilience that to this point has carried the Blue Jays through the relentless roster attrition. They’re at 18 injured list stints for 17 players already – not counting Teoscar Hernandez’s time down with COVID-19 – and Rafael Dolis, diagnosed with a Grade 1 calf strain, could push both numbers up if the Blue Jays decide they can’t play out his day-to-day status any longer.
Montoyo conceded that the constant shuffling and missing bodies can eventually catch up with a team and added that his players “deserve a lot of credit for … how well we’ve played” because with all the injuries, “that’s not easy to do.”
Cavan Biggio, whose two-run homer in the second opened the scoring, noted that players understand and expect there to be injuries but, “to this extreme and this early on, it’s something you really can’t prepare for.”
“We have a good locker-room right now,” he continued. “We’ve got great players who are healthy and we believe in each other. We’re going to go and continue to work hard every single day and just continue to have fun, because that’s what this team is all about. We’ve got a great locker-room and that’s pretty special when you can say you have a good culture and whoever is going to come in for someone who’s hurt or whatnot, they fit right in and feel at home. So we’re going to continue to push forward.”
Added Matz: “Thankfully, this team has a lot of depth. The next guy is able to step up and do what he has to do. It’s just part of it.”
Offence helps, and the Blue Jays jumped Cristian Javier early thanks to Biggio, who cashed in a Randal Grichuk walk with his shot to right field. It was a special moment for him, coming at the stadium he frequented as a kid while his father Craig was playing his way into the Hall of Fame.
Biggio’s family was in the stands and Craig, who still works for the Astros, subtly fist-bumped everyone around him while everyone else celebrated more boisterously.
“A couple of fist bumps is a lot for him, I want you guys to know that,” said the younger Biggio. “He’s as stoic of a person as I have ever seen watching his kids, whether it’s me or my brother or my sister. So a couple of fist bumps means he’s pretty excited right there. That’s cool to hear. He obviously has ties with the Astros and he’s still heavily involved with them but it’s something you really can’t put into words when his kid sat in the stands watching him play hundreds of games here, and now he’s in the stands watching me. It’s got to be a pretty surreal feeling for him because it is for me.”
Danny Jansen added a solo shot leading off the third – his fourth homer of the season, all in the past week – while Grichuk delivered a two-run double later in the frame to make it a 5-0 contest.
Matz made it work while shifting from his predominantly fastball-changeup mix in recent outings, throwing his curveball far more often to keep the Astros guessing. He surrendered a pair of home runs on changeups during his last start in Oakland, and this time Alvarez shot a slider falling out of the zone over the wall in left field.
That drive looked harmless off the bat and had an expected batting average of .190, but still cleared the wall in left. Payback for the Blue Jays came in the ninth, when Semien lofted a Joe Smith slider to a similar spot in left, with only an expected batting average of .040.
“I forgot, or never really knew how much it goes here to left,” Biggio said. “Obviously you have the short porch with the Crawford Boxes, but especially with the roof open, it seems to swirl out to the left. I was talking to my dad about that yesterday and asked him how did you only hit 26 here in one year? He laughed. But as soon as Marcus hit it, I had a pretty good feeling it was going to go out.”
Semien’s eighth homer of the season ensured that another tough day would end with a reward, but at some point all of this is going to catch up to them if the starters don’t start carrying more of the load.
The Blue Jays bullpen has thus far logged 136 of the team’s 277.2 innings, or 49 per cent. It’s an unsustainable split and the starters know they need to help out more, especially on nights like Saturday, even if they can’t take that thought out onto the mound with them.
“You can’t be going into the start being like, ‘Alright, I have to do this,’” Matz said. “You just have to stick to your game plan and try to execute the best you can. At the end of the day, you look back, you realize the bullpen has been really working. So that’s really all you can do. Every time I want to go as deep as I can. Looking at this start, it’s frustrating on myself that I still wasn’t able to do that. But ultimately, the bullpen is just continuing to do a great job and our offence, as well. It’s a good win, but ultimately I would have liked to go deeper.”
That need for innings has re-opened the door to the majors for Pearson, whose earlier than expected return was driven not only by merit, but by necessity, too.