Manoah shelled early by Astros, Blue Jays running out of options

Four different Houston Astros mashed home runs, including Corey Julks' first career grand slam, as they battered the Toronto Blue Jays 11-4.

TORONTO – John Schneider tends to be candid and sincere when fielding questions from media, a refreshing and welcomed contrast from many of his more buttoned up peers.

Still, when he needs to dance around a question, he can dance and he did precisely that ahead of the latest crisis outing by Alek Manoah, when asked if a trip the minors could, as a last resort, eventually be on the table to help the troubled right-hander get sorted.

“We’ll see. We haven’t brought it up,” replied the Toronto Blue Jays manager. “We’re talking about a really good pitcher who’s going through a little bit of a tough time. The cool thing about this team and organization is, yeah, we’re willing to do anything that we feel like we need to do to help you and players understand that, too. But as of now, though, no.”

That’s a master class in leaving all options open, something that’s becoming harder and harder to do with Manoah, who lasted only nine batters in Monday night’s 11-4 thrashing from the Houston Astros, allowing six runs on seven hits and a walk while recording one measly out.

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The end result was worst-case on multiple fronts, as any incremental gains Manoah might have drawn from his four-inning start last week against Milwaukee disappeared, while the Blue Jays burned through six relievers in the first of four with the defending World Series champs, further pressuring an already heavily used bullpen.

A deep Kevin Gausman outing Tuesday can help fix the latter but the next steps for Manoah are far more complicated. Schneider deftly avoided tipping the Blue Jays’ hand afterwards – there’s no need to, nor sense in making a heat-of-the-moment decision on something this important – and his post-game message was simple and consistent, no matter how questions were framed.

“The main focus is just do whatever we need to do to get him better,” said Schneider.

Fair enough, but in that reply’s wake, two questions that cut to the heart of the matter – what’s best for Manoah, short, medium and long term; and what’s best for the Blue Jays.

Though he did have some bad luck – a bunt single by Jeremy Pena that stubbornly clung to the third-base line, a Yordan Alvarez grounder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. couldn’t pluck on a hop, Corey Julks seemingly guessing right on a sinker that broke in off the plate to still barrel it for a grand slam – the outing was a microcosm of all that’s ailing him.

Stuff that’s not quite as crisp as it was a year ago. Falling behind hitters. Not finishing off the ones he did get ahead of. Lots and lots and lots of pitches, leading to an excruciatingly long inning in the field for his teammates. His between starts work not fully translating.

“I mean, the first pitch of the game was blooped into the right field,” said Manoah “Two pitches later, the ball was bunted right down the line. Thought I made some good pitches to Alvarez, obviously he got a base hit. Got (Alex) Bregman out and had (Jose) Abreu down 0-2, tried to get him to chase some pitches, then walked him. Then threw what I thought was a really good sinker at the knees, (Julks) kind of just ambushed it and hit a home run, so. A lot of things I’ve been working on didn’t even have a chance to really go out there and use. Just got to show up tomorrow and get ready for the next one.”

Barring a change, that would be Saturday against the Minnesota Twins, but the club can’t afford another start like this one, obviously, burying the offence early against a great team in the softer parts of its rotation, while forcing Schneider to burn through the bullpen.

But the Blue Jays aren’t exactly flush with alternatives right now and some of their prime options at triple-A Buffalo – veteran Casey Lawrence, depth-add Zach Thompson and farmhand Bowden Francis after Drew Hutchison exercised his opt-out – aren’t locks to provide much more.

To make someone like them work, they’d need to rejig their bullpen with a bulk-innings arm and Mitch White, no longer being stretched out as a starter according to Schneider, is an option depending on how he emerges from Wednesday’s rehab outing. Thomas Hatch also impressed during an earlier call-up.

But that would also mean clearing out someone currently in the mix to make room, which is far from ideal.

Yet if that’s the best thing for Manoah, then maybe that’s what it needs to be.

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Schneider was optimistic about his starter’s work between outings, saying his bullpen had “intensity” that made the session “a little bit more game-like.”

It didn’t translate, even though Manoah “was in the zone much more, I think,” the manager added. “But at the end of the day it’s a lot of pitches through the first nine hitters and one of the things we’re looking at is pitches per inning and tonight wasn’t his night.”

In that way, the solution to Manoah’s issues remains a moving target, beginning with various mechanics to fixing his slider to a focus on mindset.

Manoah’s post-game comment last time that he needs to shift his thought process back to throw a strike from don’t throw a ball “was part of the conversation,” over the last week, said Schneider, “but once that conversation is done, then you have to go do it. You have to go execute it whether you’re playing catch, or you’re throwing off the mound.”

Does a nudge-nudge, wink-wink neck strain like the Blue Jays used to get Yusei Kikuchi an injury-list breather last summer help on that front? Do they go more extreme and option him to the minors for a get-right tuneup?

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Optioning Manoah the season after an all-star campaign wouldn’t be unprecedented, as in 2019 Atlanta demoted Mike Foltynewicz when in his first 11 starts he pitched to a 6.37 ERA over 59.1 innings. The right-hander spent a month and a half at triple-A Gwinnett before returning to make 10 starts, posting a 2.65 ERA across 57.2 innings, but he never regained his all-star form.

In Blue Jays history, Ricky Romero is the closest comp, as he was an all-star in 2011, gutted his way through a trying 2012 that ended with surgery on his left elbow and injections into both his knees, and then was optioned during spring training in 2013. Betrayed by his body, he made only four more big-league appearances after that.

Then there’s Roy Halladay, who seemed to have established himself as a big-leaguer with a solid swingman 1999, struggled badly in 2000 and in the spring of 2001 was optioned down to low-A, where he totally rebuilt himself into the Hall of Famer he’d eventually become.

None are blueprints. Every situation is unique. What worked for one pitcher won’t necessarily work for another. And so, the Blue Jays are left with figuring out what’s best for Manoah, along with what’s best for them as a group, too, no quick fixes, no easy answers.

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