MINNEAPOLIS – How chill does Kevin Gausman look on the mound, George Springer?
“It just looks like he doesn’t have a heartbeat,” the Toronto Blue Jays right-fielder said of his team’s starting pitcher Tuesday in Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Minnesota Twins. “He’s always so calm. He’s always so collected. It’s really hard to do what he does. Everyone knows what he’s going to do. The hard part is you just don’t know what it is. He knows how to navigate the zone, knows how to navigate his velocity. And for us to have him going the first day is a big thing for us.”
So, Kevin Gausman, are you actually that chill with the ball in your hand?
“I definitely have a heartbeat out there, it’s pumping, that’s for sure,” said the ace right-hander, who will make his seventh career appearance, third start, in the post-season. “I think that (calm) comes with just being around a little bit and understanding that you can have bad innings and come right out and still put together a good outing, don’t put too much weight into five-, six-pitch stretches where I kind of lose it. I just stay confident in myself and in my ability. And really rely on those guys behind me.”
The 32-year-old was an obvious choice for the opener after he posted a 3.16 ERA and logged 185 innings with a league-leading 237 strikeouts (his counterpart for the Twins, Pablo Lopez, finished second with 234). Whether he’d be available for Game 1 had been in doubt as the Blue Jays, by design, lined him up to pitch in Game 162 should their post-season fate have been dependent on it.
When it wasn’t, he was pushed back.
The uncertainty led to an awkward Saturday of stops and starts as Gausman worked to maintain his edge even when the Blue Jays led the Tampa Bay Rays that afternoon before losing in extra innings, and later at night as the Texas Rangers went up big and then held on to beat the Seattle Mariners, in the process booking Toronto’s ticket.
A subplot Tuesday will be Gausman’s career 6.35 ERA in 11 starts against the Twins and his 5.70 mark in six outings at Target Field and while he didn’t have an explanation for the aberration, he did say “I’m definitely excited to right the ship.”
The start will be his third of the year against the Twins, and counter to narrative, the first one May 26 at Target Field was solid, as he allowed one run in 5.1 innings on four hits and five walks with eight strikeouts. The second, on June 11 at Rogers Centre, played to form as he gave up six runs on seven hits and four walks in 4.2 frames.
What should work in Gausman’s favour is that the Twins had the second lowest average in the majors when putting splitters in play at .147, were 22nd in slugging against the offering at .280 and had the fourth highest strikeout percentage on the pitch at 40.5.
Perhaps that why Blue Jays manager John Schneider described Gausman’s career numbers against the Twins as “ironic.”
“When his stuff is on, he’s as good as anybody,” said Schneider. “There have been days where a lot of different teams have put together a good approach against Kevin. If he’s executing, his stuff is a tough match for any lineup.”
NEED FOR SPEED
The utility of speedy centre-fielder Cam Eden during a post-season series is clear and with GM Ross Atkins saying Monday that the Blue Jays are leaning “towards 14 position players and 12 pitchers” on their wild-card roster, you can count on him being included.
Giving them the confidence to call on a 25-year-old who has all of five big-league games under his belt during the pressure-cooker of the post-season is the two-week stint he had with the team in September.
Atkins said the goal of that call-up was about “the exposure and him seeing the Major League Baseball environment, more than us seeing him.”
“He is a very good fit for a major-league team to (pinch run),” Atkins continued. “He is certainly someone with a lot of consideration for that role. And I think he will have definitely benefited from that time and from the opportunity to try to steal a base (Sunday). But looked really comfortable as a base-runner, looked really comfortable as a defender, almost got a home run (Sunday) as well, got his first major-league hit. He’s handled himself well.”
The Blue Jays carrying 14 positions makes Davis Schneider a good bet to be on the wild-card roster as well. While there’s less of a clear pathway to usage for him the way the Blue Jays have run out the past couple of weeks, his power and defensive flexibility makes sense.
A taxi squad of players including Ernie Clement, Spencer Horwitz, Bowden Francis and, if he clears waivers, Jay Jackson will work out with the team in Minnesota.
ROLLING WITH RICHARDS
Expect the Blue Jays to roll with the pitching staff they finished the season with, minus Hyun Jin Ryu and Wes Parsons to get to 12 from 14.
That would include Trevor Richards, who had a tremendous season with 105 strikeouts in 72.2 innings but had a rough September, when he allowed 17 earned runs in 12.1 innings over 12 appearances. He gave up runs in all but four of those games, walking 11 while allowing 16 hits, and a case could be made for the Blue Jays to carry Francis instead.
But Atkins dismissed concerns about the right-hander’s recent performance, saying, “he looks great to me,” and made clear the Blue Jays trust in his track record and experience. “The strikeout ability is a true weapon, right-handed, left-handed. He’s been massive for us this year in a very strong bullpen and pitching staff. He’s been a huge part of that. I don’t see anything different. If he’s locating his fastball, he’s an incredible weapon.”
STAYING ON TURN
Manager Rocco Baldelli said the Twins didn’t see any reason to disrupt their starting rotation, which led to them sticking with Pablo Lopez for Game 1 followed by Sonny Gray in Game 2.
The Blue Jays are taking a similar approach with their rotation, not wanting to mess with rest in naming Jose Berrios as their guy for Wednesday after Kevin Gausman. That leaves Chris Bassitt in position to pitch a potential decisive Game 3, or open the division series round, should the Blue Jays win the wild card in two.