‘The right guy’: Blue Jays’ Manoah shuts down Rays for much-needed win

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Alek Manoah throws to a Tampa Bay Rays batter during the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Scott Audette/AP Photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – That Alek Manoah stepped up at a moment of need for the Toronto Blue Jays is no surprise. All he’s done since debuting May 27, 2021 is pick up his club with gutsy outing after gutsy outing, unfazed by the circumstances around him. It’s why, when asked if too much was expected of a young pitcher, John Schneider pointed out that the 24-year-old has already proven he’s up for big games.

“We have the right guy on the mound,” added the interim manager.

Hours after that pre-game comment, Manoah took the mound at the low-end outlet mall doubling as a baseball stadium that is Tropicana Field and demonstrated why, throwing up zero after zero after zero. Still, as good as he was, the ace right-hander could only prevent runs, not score them, which is why the fate of his gem hung in the balance deep into Saturday night.

That’s where Whit Merrifield, the trade deadline addition who struggled upon arrival but has warmed of late, stepped in, delivering a three-run shot in the seventh inning off Brooks Raley that carried the day in a 3-1 Blue Jays win that ended a three-game losing streak.

“That was huge, I kind of got a little light-headed there with how much I was yelling,” Manoah said of Merrifield’s decisive swing. “That’s a big-time hit right there and he’s been coming through for us the past few days. That fueled everybody to finish this one off.”

Manoah finished with seven shutout innings, allowing only four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts on a season-high 113 pitches, as the Blue Jays (85-67) moved a game up on the Rays (84-68) for top spot in the wild-card race. They’re still 1.5 games ahead of the third-place Seattle Mariners (83-68), who beat Kansas City 6-5, while an 11-10 loss by the Baltimore Orioles (79-72) to Houston cut Toronto’s magic number for clinching a playoff spot to six.

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“Bulldog, man,” Merrifield said of Manoah. “Gets the ball when the team needs him, this is a big game for us coming off the loss of Philly, first two dropped here, we know that this place has given us trouble this year – it’s a big game for us. … So it was nice to do enough to get a win.”

As always at the Trop, there was late drama before a crowd of 22,169 as Tim Mayza, taking over in the eighth, allowed consecutive singles after recording the first two outs, prompting Schneider to bring in Jordan Romano.

The closer, coming off blown saves in his previous two appearances, surrendered a high chopper to Harold Ramirez that resulted in an infield single that brought home one run when Bo Bichette’s throw to first sailed high, but recovered to strike out Manuel Margot.

Romano wrapped things up with a clean ninth for his 35th save.

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Merrifield’s home run was his third of the series and his emergence from an extended cold spell that coincided with his arrival to sporadic playing time comes at an opportune time. Santiago Espinal’s oblique strain, along with Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s continued absence, has left a void and a pathway to consistent at-bats.

He came in with hits in five of his past seven games and collected two more Saturday.

“He’s getting hot at the right time and brings a lot of other variables into your lineup with speed and versatility and things like that,” said Schneider. “I know it hadn’t been great for him the start he got off to here and not playing consistently, but he’s going to be in there and I love the way he’s swinging it right now, for sure.”

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The homer followed Teoscar Hernandez’s one-out double that ended the night for Drew Rasmussen, who had been nearly as suffocating as Manoah through six. Pinch-hitter Danny Jansen then worked a walk off Raley before Merrifield dropped the hammer on a first-pitch slider.

“Jano had a great at-bat right before me, coming off the bench and working a really good at-bat to get a walk,” said Merrifield. “So I was fortunate being on deck to see all of his pitches from the side and stepped in and tried to pick up the ball early, see something I could get the barrel on and got enough of it to get it out.”

Manoah, who’d been charging up his teammates all game long, came back out for the seventh, allowed a one-out single to Miles Mastobuoni and then got Francisco Mejia on a grounder to second before inducing a soft chopper from Ji-Man Choi, that Bichette charged across second to collect and relay for the final out.

As he did, Manoah had his arms up in the air and shouted out his shortstop, just as he had for several others throughout the game.

“I don’t know if they needed it, but just from my own point of view, we were down 2-0 (Friday) at one point and it felt like we’re down five-zero,” said Manoah. “It’s a tough place to play and a good ballclub over there, so I just wanted to make sure I came in with a lot of energy and kept those guys going. They keep me going, big plays, big at-bats – that’s what fuels me. Being able to give them some fire back, it’s been amazing.”

Manoah’s previous season-high in pitches was 107, over 5.2 innings of a 4-2 loss to Baltimore Aug. 16. He’s thrown seven consecutive quality starts since, going at least seven in four of them, and was pushed in this outing after being given an extra day of rest coming in.

“I feel amazing,” said Manoah. “So for all the haters that say I’m slowing down, good luck.”

Like anyone facing him this season, they’ll need it.

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