TORONTO — The regularity with which Alek Manoah delivers quality starts makes it almost too easy to take what he’s doing for granted. Really, it’s not this easy, especially for a sophomore pitcher driving up a career-high innings haul every five days, yet there’s the Toronto Blue Jays‘ right-hander never missing a turn, battling his ass off, carrying his team along the way.
Key to his remarkable season is that, even on the rare occasions when he isn’t straight shoving, he still finds a way to be really good, just as he was on Sunday while grinding out six gutsy innings of one-run ball in an eventual 5-4 Toronto Blue Jays loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
Only a rare Jordan Romano blip in the ninth — he allowed the first four batters to reach, the last being an Adley Rutschman two-run single, and later a Jesus Aguilar RBI single in his fifth blown save of the season — prevented Manoah’s effort from securing a three-game sweep.
The Blue Jays nearly rallied back in the bottom half, as George Springer missed a game-tying homer by inches and was forced to settle for an RBI double instead that made it a one-run game. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. followed with a walk, but Felix Bautista, who hit triple digits with his fastball eight times during the outing, induced a sharp Bo Bichette groundout to end it.
“Entire series was awesome,” said interim manager John Schneider. “We played great. I think it speaks volumes of what we did in the ninth inning against a really good reliever. And it just shows the mentality of this team.”
At 83-64, and after just their fifth loss this month, the Blue Jays’ recent surge ensures that they’ll head into the next week a half-game up on the Tampa Bay Rays (82-64) and two ahead of the Seattle Mariners (80-65) for the top wild-card spot. They’re also six games clear of the fourth-placed Orioles (76-69).
The Blue Jays appeared to be set for better after Guerrero Jr.’s solo shot in the seventh opened a 3-1 lead before a Rogers Centre crowd of 41,301, but instead settled for a 5-3 finish to a gruelling eight-games-in-seven-days homestand that included Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Rays.
An off-day on Monday comes at a good time for a bullpen that’s started three games in the absence of a fifth starter over the past couple of weeks, for Springer, who suffered an elbow contusion after getting hit by Dean Kremer in the third inning, and for catcher Alejandro Kirk, who’s been out with hip soreness and is expected to be ready Tuesday at the Philadelphia Phillies.
“If there wasn’t an off day to try to make sure he’s really, really good, Kirky would have been in there (Sunday),” said Schneider. “I love the way we’re playing, I love the way the guys are competing, we’re playing really good baseball right now. You enjoy the off day and you pick up a new series on Tuesday.”
Perhaps the toll of the busy stretch showed as Adam Cimber allowed an Aguilar solo shot in the eighth before Romano, absent his usual command and plus slider, got burned for a three-spot in his first blown save since Aug. 7 at Minnesota. He got 12 swings, six each on his fastball and slider, and not a single whiff, which was unusual and made the Blue Jays wonder if the Orioles plan was to sit on his slider.
“The first pitch was a slider and it was a base hit, so that could be an indicator right there,” said Danny Jansen, who extended his recent run at the plate with a go-ahead homer in the fourth and two walks. “It’s easy to go hindsight now, but slider is obviously one of his best pitches. It’s that and the heater. If we’re going to lose it with the slider, then there are times we’re going to lose it with the slider.”
Manoah, who returned from a stomach bug to beat the Rays in his last time out, allowed only four hits but also walked a season-high-tying four, which left him time and again dodging traffic in the early innings to avoid significant damage.
Some strong defence, first and foremost Teoscar Hernandez’s leaping catch against the right-field wall to rob Anthony Santander in the first, certainly helped. But he also pitched himself out of trouble in two key spots, inducing a Santander pop up and striking out Gunnar Henderson with two on and one out in the second, and popping up Robinson Chirinos and getting Cedric Mullins to fly out after Jorge Mateo’s RBI double left runners at second and third in the fourth.
“Don’t let these guys score, that was the biggest thing,” Manoah said of his thought process in those spots. “Just every pitch matters. Focus on every pitch, breathe and make sure you execute every pitch. I was able to get some big outs.”
Those outs helped leverage what little the Blue Jays managed off Kremer. A rally in the third was snuffed out after Bichette’s RBI single when Matt Chapman hit into the 10th triple play in franchise history, while Jansen’s solo shot in the fourth restored a 2-1 advantage.
Manoah’s performance has been a constant throughout a season of wild swings for the Blue Jays, with Sunday’s outing marking hi 23rd quality start of the year. While by no means a perfect stat, that 23 of his 29 outings hit that benchmark is indicative of the 24-year-old’s steadiness.
Consider that across all those starts, he hasn’t allowed more than four earned runs, and that’s only happened four times. Just six times has he gone less than six innings, never throwing fewer than five frames, and at 183.2 innings and counting, he’s currently second in the American League, pushing his career best total further and further.
“The biggest thing down this stretch is to stay keen on what I’ve been doing that’s made me so good right now,” said Manoah. “We have a really good routine in place. Shortening a long toss day here and there, little things like that. But all in all, just keeping the foundation that I have and continue to attack that.”
As the Blue Jays ran out three bullpen games to cover the vacant fifth spot in the rotation over the past couple of weeks, it’s his dependability that’s helped underpin the success of those outings.
In Kirk’s absence, Manoah threw to Jansen for the first time all season and their pairing went off without a hitch. Jansen and Manoah often discuss approaches to pitching and game-plans, so working together was far from new and building some on-field familiarity is helpful should Kirk ever end up missing significant time.
Jansen, fighting through a stop-and-start season, is tearing things up at the plate of late, batting .377/.468/.679 with four homers, nine RBIs and eight walks over his last 18 games dating back to Aug. 25, a nice complement to his strong game-handling and blocking skills.
“Every time I felt like I was doing really well I’d get hurt and all that, but knock on wood, we’re past that stuff so it’s just continuing to enhance my approach,” Jansen said of his run at the plate. “I feel like that’s enhanced for me what I’m going up there trying to do and looking for. Continue to learn. That’s what I’m trying to do, but also trying to just pass the baton on to the next guy and have a good at-bat.”
Manoah is doing the same thing on the mound, delivering a quality start and saving the bullpen for the next man up in the rotation. No matter if a bug fells him the night before he’s due to start or he struggles syncing up his legs and his arms, he finds a way.
“That’s baseball,” he said. “You’re going to get a lot of starts in the year and there are going to be some where you’re in cruise control and everything’s firing on all cylinders. And there are going to be some where you’re not firing on all cylinders and you’ve got to compete. Today was one of those and I feel like I did a good job of just keeping the team in the game.”