Yariel Rodriguez shows well in debut as Blue Jays even up series with Rockies

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Schneider discusses the MLB debut of pitcher Yariel Rodriguez, praising his stuff and professionalism in his three-plus innings of work against the Colorado Rockies.

TORONTO – Yariel Rodriguez pulled off his hat as he walked off the mound, exhaled deeply as he surveyed a standing ovation from 31,472 at Rogers Centre and then raised his arms to salute the crowd. The 27-year-old had just fulfilled his dream, throwing 3.2 innings of one-run ball in a major-league baseball game, and as a Cuban, his path to this point was far harder than most. He’d certainly earned the right to revel in the moment, even if he only did some low-key savouring of it.

“Very emotional,” Rodriguez, in comments interpreted by Hector Lebron, said of his debut. “I was pretty much waiting for this moment my entire life. A lot of sacrifices. A lot of hard work. Very, very emotional.

“It’s great when you see the fans are supporting you for your outing. It’s unbelievable (the way) the fans were today in Toronto for me.”

For the Blue Jays, his impressive showing in what finished as a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies offered several other reasons to exhale, too. 

First is that the early returns on Rodriguez, signed this off-season to a five-year contract that guarantees $32 million, suggest that his stuff will very much play in the majors. His fastball sat at 95.5 m.p.h. and topped out at 97.6. The Rockies swung at 16 sliders and missed seven. He attacked right from the hop. At minimum he looked like an elite leverage reliever, with legit starter potential.

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Second is that their tentative plan to pair Rodriguez, whose workload needs to be managed after he didn’t pitch last year while transitioning to North America, with Bowden Francis could work. Francis, who made two starts before being shifted back to the bullpen, left the bases loaded in the fourth and struck out the side around a walk in the fifth before surrendering a pair in the sixth. But a combined three runs over six innings from the duo will definitely play, with the club using Francis in a role some seem to think he’s more ideally suited for.

“The messaging (to Francis) has been pretty clear and it really hasn’t wavered — it’s be ready to pitch and be ready to pitch pretty regularly,” said manager John Schneider. “Things can change. Having a guy like Bowden is very, very valuable, whether it’s starting or whether it’s doing something like he did today. What he did today kind of goes unnoticed. But the messaging has been consistent. We believe in him and he’s a big part of what we’re doing.”

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Third is that Tim Mayza, who’s been fighting a velocity dip as well as some ineffectiveness, went through Charlie Blackmon, Ezequiel Tovar and Ryan McMahon in a clean top of the seventh where he looked a lot more like himself.

“The movement on his sinker was really back to normal, and the velo, up to 93,” said Schneider. “It was hopefully an outing that he can build on. But just the way his sinker was moving was back to normal.”

Finally, there was Daulton Varsho delivering a key blow in a five-run first, smashing a middle-middle, 91.3 m.p.h. fastball from Dakota Hudson begging to be obliterated over the wall in right for his second career grand slam. That it followed Davis Schneider’s two-out RBI walk ensured that a shaky Hudson didn’t wiggle free from an early jam relatively unscathed.

“The big thing is that the pitcher is in trouble there and not me,” Varsho, now with homers on consecutive days, said of capitalizing on the cookie. “Knowing that he’s a sinker-baller guy, he’s probably trying to get me to be out front, try to chase something that’s down. So it was getting my pitch and being ready for it.”

Now, how sustainable this makeshift piggyback system is remains an interesting question.

While the Blue Jays want to keep Rodriguez on a schedule, they’ll only push him so far in this first year back, trying to balance his development in a win-now campaign. As manager John Schneider put it, “I don’t think we’re looking at him going 100 pitches like a Chris Bassitt or Jose Berrios, or (Kevin Gausman). We’ll build him up to a regular pitch count, if you will, but we still have to be mindful of the innings as the year goes.”

That means Francis needs to be tethered to him for the time being, although a short outing from another starter could easily throw that into chaos. And with Erik Swanson pitching in his third rehab game Saturday and Jordan Romano his second at triple-A Buffalo, there could soon be pressure on the roster spots of long-man Mitch White and inning-plus option Nate Pearson.

To make this work then, the Blue Jays will need to live with steady flux.

“Everything’s pretty fluid, right?” said Schneider. “If it works out, great. Today was a pretty good blueprint. But if it’s Bowden an inning and two thirds or two innings, or four, we have the luxury to do that. A lot of it just depends on how the game unfolds. Today worked out really well. But it not going to be written in stone that this is how we’re going to do it every single time.”

Then there’s Alek Manoah, who allowed four runs on eight hits and a walk in 3.1 innings for Buffalo on Saturday, holding his stuff on a cold day, even if the results didn’t show it.

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Manoah’s absence triggered much of the improvising the Blue Jays have done with their pitching staff in the season’s early weeks, creating the rotation opening initially filled by Francis while necessitating two long relief arms in the bullpen – White and Wes Parsons to start, the latter leading to Paolo Espino, who on Saturday was optioned for Rodriguez.

A Manoah return to form would allow Francis to slot more naturally into an any-time-needed-rather-than-scheduled bulk role with Rodriguez, perhaps doing some multi-inning leverage work once his innings-count gets too high. And he gives the Blue Jays an in-house option in case either Swanson or Romano doesn’t fully bounce back from their early-season arm issues.

Still, Manoah needs to get right first for that to be on the table so for the time being, it looks like a Rodriguez and Francis tandem in the fifth spot. One spot is far from definitive proof, but Rodriguez certainly looks like a quality big-league arm, and someone up for the challenge.

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