Matz looks like difference-maker for Blue Jays after three strong starts

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Steven Matz throws during the first inning in the first baseball game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

TORONTO – It was in his third start of the 2020 season that Steven Matz‘s year started to unravel.

After opening the season with two strong outings, he allowed five runs in just three innings against the Washington Nationals last August 4, foreshadowing what would be an extremely disappointing finish to the year for the left-hander. From that day on, he would allow more runs than innings pitched for the Mets. Soon after the season ended, it became apparent the Mets were ready to trade him.

Three starts into his career with the Toronto Blue Jays, Matz is making a convincing case that his 2020 struggles are behind him. After a strong opening effort against the Texas Rangers and an equally impressive start against the Los Angeles Angels, Matz faced the Kansas City Royals in the first game of Saturday’s double-header and allowed just one run on two hits over six innings as the Blue Jays won 5-1.

“It’s fun to get in a groove early in the season, especially when you’ve got a lineup like this,” Matz said afterwards. “It’s been good. I’m just trying to build off each start and get better every time out. That’s the goal going forward.”

Like any team in win-now mode, the Blue Jays will take wins any way they can get them. But to determine how sustainable these early-season results are, it’s worth looking at how Matz is keeping runs off the board. On that front, the process is as encouraging as the results. His fastball velocity remains up – he topped out at 95.9 m.p.h. Saturday – and the change-up was particularly effective.

“Those two pitches were working well together,” said Matz, who walked two Royals while striking out five.

Clearly, nobody expects Matz to keep his ERA at 1.47 all year. But with each passing start, he looks more like the pitcher who posted a 4.09 ERA over the course of 60 starts for the Mets from 2018-19. And that version of Matz would be a welcome addition to a Blue Jays pitching staff with few sure things in the rotation. It’s certainly more than they could have banked on when they sent Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Josh Winckowski to the Mets back in January.

Even beyond Matz’s start, there were plenty of positives for the Blue Jays despite the absence of Cavan Biggio from the starting lineup (Biggio tested his injured right hand by playing some catch and hitting off a tee Saturday while Santiago Espinal got the start at third).

In the first inning, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. got the scoring started with a two-run double that nearly cleared Kauffman Stadium’s left-centre field wall. Considering how slowly Gurriel Jr. has started at the plate, that double was a welcome hint that better results await the Blue Jays’ left fielder.

Another struggling outfielder delivered a big hit in the top of the fifth inning, when Jonathan Davis homered off the left field foul pole. Later, Davis would single and steal his first base of the year before scoring on a Marcus Semien sacrifice fly.

One inning after Davis went deep, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a solo homer of his own. After that home run – Guerrero Jr.’s fourth of the season – he’s hitting .429 with an OPS of 1.268. It’s incredible production, and Guerrero Jr.’s advanced plate approach and elite exit velocity numbers suggest a lot of his success will be sustainable.

“It’s been awesome,” said Matz, whose favourite player growing up was Vladimir Guerrero Sr. “I feel like every time he steps into the box he’s going to absolutely smash a ball. He’s really talented and it’s been really fun to be able to witness that. I think he’s going to have a great career.”

As with Matz, though, some regression is inevitable for Guerrero Jr. And by that same line of reasoning, it’s fair to expect more from the likes of Gurriel Jr. going forward.

All things considered, Saturday afternoon went just about as well as the Blue Jays could have hoped. On the pitching side, Matz looks like a meaningful addition and Rafael Dolis closed things out after allowing the first two runners to reach. At the plate, Guerrero Jr. keeps hitting and some of his teammates are starting to come around too.

Of course with another game just hours away and 147 more on the schedule after that, there are plenty more tests ahead for the Blue Jays.

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