TORONTO — When Alek Manoah was sent down to the Florida Complex League earlier this week, the immediate question became who would fill his spot in the rotation. The Toronto Blue Jays lack viable options in the upper minor leagues, shining a glaring light on the organization’s lack of starting pitching depth.
The answer to that problem, for one day at least, was sitting in the Blue Jays’ bullpen all along.
Trevor Richards started Saturday afternoon’s contest and while he didn’t factor into what was ultimately a 9-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Rogers Centre, the right-handed reliever offered a valiant and excellent effort.
Pitching on what would have been Manoah’s start day, Richards allowed a double to Quebec native Edouard Julien to lead off the game, then proceeded to retire the next eight batters, before walking Julien in the third.
Richards deployed a devastating changeup that induced a whopping 13 whiffs on 17 swings (76 per cent) over his three innings of work, striking out seven on a season-high 53 pitches. For context, that’s the most he’s thrown in a game since Sept. 17, 2020, when he was a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I just wanted to make sure I went out there every inning attacking guys and throwing as if it was my last inning,” Richards said. “Not thinking about the how many [innings] I’ll go or anything like that. Just go out there, attack them and focus on that current at-bat.”
The Blue Jays announced Richards as the starter on Saturday morning and manager John Schneider expressed confidence in the right-hander because of his experience starting — Richard broke into the big leagues as a starter with Miami and entered the day with 56 career starts — as well as the fact he could provide length. The skipper also noted the team felt Richards matched up well with Twins hitters.
Richards, who said he’d be fine with starting again if the team asked, didn’t change anything in his routine.
“[I started] a couple of times last year,” said Richards. “Me, personally, I keep it as same as possible. I still do my normal routine. I throw with the relievers. I keep it as normal as possible and just adjust the game time, really.”
Tim Mayza replaced him and tossed a scoreless 1 1/3 innings before handing the ball over to Bowden Francis, who was impressive in what was just the second appearance of his big-league career. The right-hander struck out the first three batters he faced and allowed just one run, a solo homer to Trevor Larnach in the seventh, over his 2.2 innings of work.
He tossed only 33 pitches and was certainly stretched out to the point where he could handle more. However, Schneider opted to remove Francis from the game and replace him with right-hander Adam Cimber to begin the eighth inning. That’s where it all fell apart for the Blue Jays, who were leading 3-1 at the time.
Michael Taylor reached on a bunt single and the Twins collected back-to-back hits off Cimber to load the bases for Carlos Correa. The star shortstop, who’s struggled mightily this season, proceeded to launch an 0-1 slider into the left field stands for a game-changing grand slam that put the Twins up 5-3.
Max Kepler added a three-run home run off Blue Jays reliever Mitch White later in the inning to put the game out of reach.
Schneider, who was without relievers Erik Swanson, Yimi Garcia and Nate Pearson, each having pitched on Friday night, was asked about his decision to bring in Cimber.
“Pretty easy choice with what we had available and the way the game was going,” Schneider said. “Bowden threw the ball extremely well, [but] obviously at the part of the order, Cimber’s been there. Not necessarily in leverage spots, but he’s been there before and [we] trusted him. It’s a bunt hit, it’s a broken-bat single and things kind of unravel from there and good hitter in Correa yanks a slider that’s on the outer half for a homer.
“But it was an easy decision.”
It’s a gut-wrenching way to drop a game, but there are at least positives to be found in the performances of Richards and Francis. Schneider lauded both right-handers, highlighting Richards’ continued reliability all season and the composure Francis showed in what was a big moment for him.
The manager didn’t tip his hand about how the Blue Jays will handle this rotation spot five days from now, but conceded that Saturday offered some takeaways.
“Knowing that we have two pretty good options in Trev and Bowden that you can stretch out and use in the bullpen accordingly,” said Schneider. “Impressive by both of those guys today and definitely gives us options going forward.”
Francis — a seventh-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017 — made his major-league debut against the Boston Red Sox on April 27, 2022. He allowed one double in that affair before retiring the next two hitters and then waited 409 days to get the opportunity he received on Saturday.
“It feels a lot different,” Francis said. “That first one feels like you’re shooting a movie and it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, God what’s going on?’ But this one [I] felt more comfortable and more poised. I felt more in my body this time.
“Just trying to be in the moment,” he added. “Really kept worrying about breathing and just stay in the moment and feel comfortable. All the stuff was there. It was a good day, but not a good day for the team.”
The Blue Jays’ offence scratched three runs early going off Twins right-hander Joe Ryan, who entered the day ninth in the American League with a 2.76 ERA. Matt Chapman walked to open the bottom of the second, advanced on Alejandro Kirk’s groundout, then came around to score the Blue Jays’ first run on Whit Merrifield’s single to right field.
Brandon Belt — moved to the third spot in the lineup on Saturday, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. shifting to cleanup for the first time since April of 2021 — slashed a two-out double to right field in the third frame and Guerrero Jr. jumped on the very next pitch, driving it to right for a single that cashed in Belt to make it 2-0.
Belt slowed down considerably as he rounded third base and clutched his left leg after crossing home. The designated hitter was removed from the game in the fifth inning with left hamstring tightness, an injury that bears watching given his importance to the lineup. Schneider said Belt would receive more tests and be re-evaluated on Sunday.
Kevin Gausman will take the mound that day as the Blue Jays look to avoid a three-game sweep. From a pitching perspective, that means it’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming. Schneider won’t have to worry about an opener and, the way Gausman’s been pitching, might not need to be too concerned about bullpen decisions.
That certainly occupied a good portion of his game-planning on Saturday and it almost worked out.
“Really, before the eighth inning, I don’t think we could have really scripted it any better than the way it went,” said Schneider. “So, it just comes down to making pitches. And today wasn’t the day.”