DUNEDIN, Fla. – When the Toronto Blue Jays open the 2023 season next Thursday, Alek Manoah will be on the mound.
It’s the first career Opening Day start for Manoah, who posted a 2.24 ERA in 2022 on his way to 196.2 innings and a third-place finish in American League Cy Young Award voting. The honour also comes less than two years after Manoah’s MLB debut, reinforcing just how rapid his ascent to stardom has been since being selected by the Blue Jays 11th overall in the 2019 draft.
“I was super-excited to hear that,” Manoah said. “It’s pretty amazing. A couple of years ago, I was coming (into) camp, just doing everything I can to make it hard on them to not send me down to the minor leagues, you know? And a couple of years later, they named me the Opening Day starter. I’m super-blessed for the opportunity.”
The Blue Jays announced Manoah’s Opening Day assignment early Friday afternoon ahead of his final Grapefruit League start, a nighttime assignment against the Philadelphia Phillies that saw him pitch into the seventh inning, allowing just three hits and two walks while striking out six.
“You can expect him to be up to the task,” manager John Schneider said. “Alek has shown he loves big games. A lot went into it. We have a lot of really good pitchers. He’s separated himself a little bit last year and even into this year after a huge workload. We’re confident in him as we are everybody, but he’s really looking forward to it, excited about it, and so are we.”
The Blue Jays open the season with a significant test, facing a Cardinals team that won 93 games on the way to an NL Central title last year. Miles Mikolas will start opposite Manoah in a game that’s sure to sell out Busch Stadium.
“I love big games because I always pitch like every game is my last game,” Manoah said. “I always pitch with a lot of passion. In those big games, the fans are matching that passion, you know? So I feel like I feed off of that energy.”
Before learning the news, the right-hander invited his mom, Susana, to St. Louis, anticipating that he’d pitch at some point during the season-opening series. When the Blue Jays told Manoah the news earlier in the week, he hugged Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker in appreciation.
“You could see him light up immediately,” Schneider recalled. “He gave us a big hug in his tank top. It was great. Typical Alek. But he was very, very appreciative, humble, excited, and then got right back down to being very serious about it. A cool moment.”
Soon after learning the news, he told his mom he’d be pitching on Day 1.
“She was coming to St. Louis either way,” he said. “We kind of guessed I’d be one of the first three. But, yeah, she was super-excited to find out it was Day 1.
Growing up in Miami, Manoah remembers the anticipation of Opening Day as a fan. Now, baseball fans will look forward to his season-opening outing with the familiar feeling of possibility that a new season brings.
“You spend 170 days in the off-season just waiting, waiting for baseball to be back,” he said. “And now everybody’s going to be glued to their TVs and everybody is going to be excited to watch their team play.”
Kevin Gausman will start the second game of the season for the Blue Jays while Chris Bassitt, Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi will round out the rotation. With both Berrios and Kikuchi set to pitch in the Blue Jays’ final spring game, it appears Bassitt will start game three.
Regardless, the rotation is now set. If any doubt remained about Kikuchi’s place in the rotation, he erased it Thursday with a nine-strikeout performance against the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers.
“He’s in,” Schneider said of Kikuchi. “He’s done more than we could have hoped for. With the changes he’s made, the spring that he’s had, he’s earned it.”
Last year, Berrios started on opening day only to give up four earned runs against the Rangers on a night he didn’t escape the first inning. As it turned out, that would be a sign of things to come for the Puerto Rican right-hander, who posted a 5.23 ERA in his first full season in Toronto.
Under those circumstances, the other candidate who earned consideration for the 2023 opening day assignment was Gausman, who overcame some bad batted ball luck to post a 3.35 ERA in 31 starts a year ago. He’s pitched exceptionally well again this spring, leading many industry observers to predict a big year this coming season.
But as impressive as Gausman’s 2022 season was, Manoah had the stronger year. Now, at age 25, he’ll take the responsibility of getting the Blue Jays’ 2023 season off to a winning start.
“It’s a credit to him,” Schneider said. “He’s wise beyond his years and probably one of the best competitors I’ve ever been around.”