TORONTO – Across baseball, how many pitchers are more dominant than Kevin Gausman right now? There’s Spencer Strider, the National League strikeout leader. Shane McClanahan, who leads the AL with a 2.02 ERA. Maybe Gerrit Cole, the five-time all-star, or two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani.
And then? The list thins out pretty quickly. Any discussion about the game’s elite starting pitchers must include Gausman, whose importance to the Toronto Blue Jays continues to grow.
The Blue Jays have known this all year, of course, but in case the Astros needed a reminder they got one Tuesday. In Gausman’s fourth start of the season they had hit him hard, scoring seven earned runs against him at Minute Maid Park. On Tuesday, though, it was Gausman who overpowered the Astros. He pitched seven innings, allowing a Mauricio Dubon leadoff homer but nothing else, while matching his career high with 13 strikeouts.
“It’s workmanlike,” said manager John Schneider. “It’s professional. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game.”
The result, on a day of highs and lows for the Blue Jays: a 5-1 win that improves their record to 34-28. And after asking the bullpen for 8.2 innings of work in the series opener Monday, Schneider needed just two innings of relief this time. That’s a significant development for a team now playing 30 games in a 31-day span.
“You’re not necessarily thinking about that (going deep into the game),” Gausman said. “You’re just trying to survive. Yeah, I was here yesterday. But you try to just focus (on your game), pitch to pitch.”
As usual, Gausman’s fastball and splitter were effective. He allowed just four hits and zero walks, threw 101 pitches and lowered his season ERA to 2.63. He’s now tied with Strider for an MLB-leading 113 strikeouts and also leads the sport with 82 innings pitched.
“This is pretty dominant,” said outfielder Daulton Varsho. “He’s an unbelievable pitcher and there’s a reason why he’s dominating.”
Put simply, this is the kind of performance that front office officials dream of when they sign pitchers to $110-million deals. One reason for the consistency: an ability to steady himself after difficult moments like the leadoff homer by Dubon.
“I definitely had to learn that when I was young,” said the 32-year-old veteran of 11 seasons. “I definitely let innings snowball and I felt like I was throwing way more strikes and I probably was, so I maybe was a little chirpy towards umpires. Every year I gain experience.”
Offensively, the Blue Jays managed only five hits, but since three of them were home runs Gausman had plenty of support. George Springer got the Blue Jays started with his ninth home run, a two-run shot in the third inning. The next inning, Varsho hit No. 11 – though replay confirmation was needed before he could complete his home run trot.
“I’m not a person who stares at my homers,” a smiling Varsho said afterwards. “I run out of the box. So obviously I was trying to (get to) third and when it went over the wall, I was like ‘oh great, I’ll move on to the next next one.'”
Finally, Bo Bichette opened the bottom of the eighth with his 13th home run, an opposite-field shot to right.
Of course, the big news of the day occurred before the game even began. About four hours before first pitch, the team announced a flurry of moves, including one that would have been unimaginable a couple of months ago. Alek Manoah, who finished third in AL Cy Young voting a year ago, was optioned to the Florida Complex League after posting a 6.36 ERA over his first 13 starts.
The next steps for Manoah include some physical and mechanical evaluations at the Blue Jays’ Dunedin, Fla. player development complex followed by starts against players just beginning their professional careers. While there’s no timeline for his return to the majors, more consistent strike throwing is a must for Manoah.
As Schneider said: “It’s a tough day because he’s such a big part of what we’ve done and what we continue to do.”
As for the Blue Jays, they’re down a starter after making it through two-plus months with the five pitchers who began the season in the rotation. Bowden Francis, called up Tuesday from triple-A Buffalo, is a candidate to start Saturday against the Minnesota Twins but there’s a good chance Trevor Richards and others are available on what may amount to a bullpen day.
Meanwhile, Santiago Espinal returned to the lineup following a 15-game absence and played third base, going hitless in three at-bats. Starting third baseman Matt Chapman was on the bench after having an infected ingrown toenail removed late Monday.
Two months into the season every team in baseball’s dealing with nagging injuries and underperforming players. Not all of them have pitchers like Gausman, though, and that’s making a meaningful difference for the Blue Jays.
“A day like (Monday) can put you in a bind for a couple of days,” Schneider said. “What Kevin did reset us a little bit. That’s what really good pitchers do. They understand the situation that they’re in. He doesn’t put too much pressure on himself. It’s just the same. So it wasn’t like he was trying to do more than he should have. But he really lined us up well moving forward.”