TORONTO — The first two innings were a slog. Walk out of the gate. Long at-bat after long at-bat, totalling 22 pitches in the first, 26 more in the second.
At times, both Alek Manoah’s fastball and slider were all over the place, and not in a good, strike-to-ball way. One of those heaters tailed back over the middle of the plate for Canadian Abraham Toro, who whacked it 347 feet over the right-field wall. Even a three-up, three-down third needed 16 pitches before a clever escape from a two-on, none-out jam capped another high-pitch-count, low-efficiency night, the Toronto Blue Jays not risking a third time through the Milwaukee Brewers for their off-kilter righty in what finished as a 4-2 loss Wednesday night.
Debate incremental gain versus wheel-spinning all you like, but as June begins, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that whatever issues Manoah is working through aren’t going to suddenly disappear. His talent, work ethic and competitiveness create the potential for a sudden correction, of course, but 12 starts in, his ERA at 5.46 and consistency across the board continues to elude him.
In 2021, he was an electric talent on the rise. In 2022, he was an All-Star and Cy Young Award finalist. This year, the success that came so naturally is gone and he’s facing a grind to get it back.
“Probably more incremental, I think,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider agreed. “Try to have a couple of positive outings in a row to really get him rolling. When you’re at this point in the season … you’re trying to win every game, right? He understands that and I think everyone in the bullpen understands that. It’ll come. You have to kind of be very particular to see when it is getting there, and kind of treat that accordingly and not just sit back, and maybe allow some things that have been happening to continue to happen later in games. Hopefully, there are incremental gains going forward.”
To that end, Schneider cut off Manoah’s outing at 89 pitches through four innings, not giving him some runway to start the fifth and see what happens. Manoah walked three, each at the start of an inning, and in a 2-0 game, with Julio Teheran’s slop and Milwaukee’s defensive alignments giving the Blue Jays fits at the plate, preventing the Brewers from adding on was paramount.
The two talked about it at length in the dugout during the bottom of the fourth, the 25-year-old’s disappointment evident.
Still crestfallen in the Blue Jays clubhouse afterward, Manoah nearly choked up twice, first while talking about coping with his struggles, when he said, “It’s been tough, obviously. I’m not doing what I’m meant to be doing, so I just got to keep fighting and keep finding positives and building off them.”
Then again later, when talking about his conversation with Schneider.
“I’m just trying to go get another inning. I was trying to help the bullpen, trying to get some momentum for this team,” he said, voice cracking. “Obviously, would love to go out there and throw nine innings and not even have to talk to the manager until I’m shaking his hand at the end. That’s not where we’re at right now, just got to keep going.”
While the Blue Jays have repeatedly insisted that Manoah is handling his struggles well, he opened an intriguing window into where he’s at while discussing the balance between mindset and mechanics in attacking hitters.
“It’s obviously both,” he said. “The mindset of don’t throw a ball here instead of throw a strike right here is a difference-maker, and right now I’m stuck in, ‘Don’t throw a ball here.’”
An important question for the Blue Jays is whether that’s just a byproduct of a difficult stretch or reflective of something more significant.
Earlier in the season, after surrendering seven runs in 4.2 innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, Manoah spoke with conviction about fitting together “pieces to the puzzle” with his velocity and mechanics, building toward a more complete picture.
But before Wednesday’s game, Schneider said Manoah’s “mechanics and delivery are in a spot now where it’s just trusting your stuff and getting in the zone.”
But with his velocity still down and his slider not back to elite yet, that adds another dynamic to the mix, making it harder to determine what’s cause and what’s effect.
“I’ve felt close for a while. I just feel like balls aren’t really rolling my way right now,” said Manoah. “And I’m not really helping myself either, giving guys a chance. Got to get in the box earlier, got to attack and throw everything I’ve got, every pitch I’ve got to give this team a chance.”
To his credit, Manoah did that, holding the Brewers to Toro’s two-run homer through four frames. He left the Blue Jays in a 2-0 hole they never dug out from, but blame a 1-for-13 night with runners in scoring position for that.
Kevin Kiermaier’s RBI triple in the fifth made it a one-run game before Milwaukee opened things up against Tim Mayza in the seventh on Owen Miller’s two-run double. A Cavan Biggio RBI groundout in the bottom half made it a 4-2 game, but the rally ended there.
Of note is that Anthony Bass pitched for the first time since he shared an intolerant Instagram post and drew boos from a crowd of 42,205 throughout a runless ninth. The follow-ups to the scripted apology he delivered Tuesday afternoon will help determine whether that becomes the norm every time he takes the mound.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have to decide how to best help Manoah return to his norm.
So much with him is easy to forget — how young he is, how inexperienced he is, how much he’s pitched in a short time frame, the outlier development path forced upon him by the pandemic, that he’s facing such baseball challenges for the first time under a bright spotlight, with intense expectations.
He’s made it all look so easy. It hasn’t been. And while careers aren’t linear, it’s only 11 starts ago that he took the mound on opening day, an honour he earned.
“We’re talking about a guy who’s been really good and we’re trying to build after each side, each outing and kind of go from there,” said Schneider. “It’s kind of up to him, I think, to really just continue to attack the zone. And he’s really got to just take it one inning and one outing at a time.”
In other words, not a quick fix. Right now, that’s where Manoah’s at.