BALTIMORE — Alek Manoah roughly started preparing for Wednesday’s start here:
That was in the moments after Tuesday’s Toronto Blue Jays 9-6 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, one that broke a streak of five wins, ended a run of eight straight road wins, and, maybe you’ve heard, got a little spicy.
The whole of this week’s series at Camden Yards has been quite emotional, believe me, from Kevin Gausman’s intense start and showdown with umpire Jeff Nelson in the first game of Monday’s doubleheader, to Bo Bichette’s heady night in the second half after the Orioles had substituted starters four minutes prior to the first pitch, until Wednesday’s late-game dust-up.
And as if it were a script, there was Manoah, the fiery, warlike 24-year-old, the man who led the American League in batters, the guy who challenged Gerrit Cole to go on and make his day a few weeks ago, fed to start the final. September ball; two clubs competing for one spot in the play-offs; a row the night before fresh on everyone’s mind. As a baseball fan, you grind through months after months of pedestrian, ho-hum, dog-day games for moments like this.
Manoah too. Every early afternoon in the weight room, every bullpen between starts, every arm care session, every pre-game routine starting an hour before the first pitch, walking slowly to the outfield in his big blue coat, a bag of bands and weighted balls dangling on his right, that flashy red glove on his left and a soccer ball clutched under his arm.
He does it all for these kinds of games, so he can take a big podium and put his best foot forward like he did on Wednesday, working eight innings of three-hit, one-run ball into a 4-1 Blue Jays win over the Orioles.
Manoah had it all. A four-seamer that sits 94 mph and sails up to 97. A sinker that generated seven gadgets on 14 swings. A slider he landed on the plate for both right and left when he wasn’t using it to go strike-to-ball. A substitution he didn’t need much, but he threw just enough to keep in mind the thoughts of the six Orioles slamming into him left-handed.
He struckout five, he ran only once, got eight outs on the ground and seven in the air. He gained speed as the night went on, throwing his nine hardest pitches in the fourth inning or later, and four of them in the sixth. He was that guy.
He did have to navigate rocky waters early, as Anthony Santander took a two-out, two-strike slider at his knees to the right for a single in the first. A pitch later, Ryan Mountcastle grounded out 101.1 mph under Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s glove. and in the right corner of the field, where it rattled long enough to knock Santander down.
A five-pitch Gunnar Henderson walk followed, spurring a rare first-inning pitching visit from Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. After that brief regroup, Manoah caused Kyle Stowers to ground out on three pitches to start a run of 14 in a row.
That brought in Manoah in the sixth, when Adley Rutschman took a 2-2 heater into the right-center field for an one-out double. Undeterred, Manoah quickly got Santander into the ground chasing a change-up before working backwards to take out Mountcastle with a few stoves played with early count sliders. And off he went, jogging down the hill.
The seventh was a breeze, and when Manoah took the bump for eighth sitting in 90 places, the look in his eyes was the same as in the Blue Jays dugout the night before.
He shot Rougned Odor straight up and didn’t even see the ball fall into Matt Chapman’s glove. Two throws later, he flew Jorge Mateo to the center and ran off the back of the mound as if he had knocked him out. The next throw, he knocked out Cedric Mullins to the first and didn’t miss a step that went through the sack to earn his 24th himself.
Back in the Blue Jays dugout, his manager, John Schneider, stopped by for a brief chat and Manoah took a front row seat on the top step as player after player and coach after coach came knocking him on the back.
If the Blue Jays were leading more than three, he might have gone back for the ninth. But Jordan Romano is one of the best closers in baseball, so there’s no point in getting cute. And he went three up, three down to earn his 31st save of the season.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays scrambled an early cross in the second inning off Orioles-starter Tyler Wells, when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. beats a throw to first to avoid a double play. That drove in Alejandro Kirk, who led off the inning with a single of his own.
But Gurriel’s effort proved to be costly, as he clumsily hit first base with his protruding left foot and crash-landed behind the bag in serious inconvenience. The outfielder stayed down for some time before leaving the field under his own power. The Blue Jays describe Gurriel’s injury as left hamstring discomfort, which doesn’t tell us much. It’s a situation to watch over the next few days.
The Blue Jays added three more runs in the fifth, stringing together three basehits and two walks while taking advantage of a Rutschman throwing error on an unwise pick-off attempt by Kirk at first base.
If you like watching Manoah pitch in big games like this one, get used to it. As things stand, the big right-hander will likely only face rivals in the division battling for the post-season position from now until after the season.
The Blue Jays are toying with the idea of bringing Manoah back to four days of rest on Monday in the opener of a five-game set at Rogers Center against the Tampa Bay Rays, neglecting the chance to use Thursday’s day off to take him out. giving an extra day between trips. If the Blue Jays go that route, it would align Manoah to pitch at home to the Orioles the following weekend, during the club’s September 22-25 series at Tropicana Field, and within the three-game set the Blue Jays host the New York Yankees before the end of the month.
So recreate those Rays, Orioles, Rays, Yankees and possibly the Orioles during Toronto’s last run of the season, if it’s a consistent one. If not, and the Blue Jays’ fate after the season is already certain, Manoah’s next outing would have to wait until, oh, just the Wild Card round. Either way, Manoah will be hitting the mound for meaningful, highly leveraged matches against strong competition, every time from here through the off-season.
By taking three out of four from the Orioles this week, the Blue Jays pushed their closest competition for the AL’s third wildcard spot down to 4.5 games. They gained light ground over the Tampa Bay Rays (1.5 games ahead) and Seattle Mariners (half a game ahead) in the wildcard standings, in part by playing one game more than either team did over the three days. And they stayed within striking distance of the York Yankees for an AL East lead that is getting closer and closer to get into the game.
No ground can be won on Thursday’s day off, but Friday offers an attractive opportunity to continue stockpiling as the club travels south for a three-game set with the 59-76 Texas Rangers. The Blue Jays send Ross Stripling and Kevin Gausman to the mound for the first two games, but have not yet announced a starter for Sunday’s final.
There are a few different ways one could go. The club may choose to do something similar to last weekend in Pittsburgh, when Trevor Richards started and gave way to a procession of six relievers behind him. That is the preferred option. But it could also summon a starter from triple-A Buffalo—probably Thomas Hatch, as Casey Lawrence can’t recall that soon after being given an option on Monday—depending on how heavily his bullpen is used on Friday and Saturday.
Complicating matters is the lack of an off-day after the Rangers series. Instead, starting Monday, the club will face a critical set of five games in four days with the Rays at Rogers Center. That series includes a doubleheader on Tuesday and much of the club’s planning revolves around having enough pitching to cover those 18 innings. It’s not a place a team in the middle of a playoffs ever wants to be. But it’s a place the schedulers have forced Toronto to confront.
After a rough Tuesday, Mitch White was given the option to triple Buffalo Wednesday, allowing the Blue Jays to bolster an overused bullpen with Zach Pop. But White will remain with the club traveling to Texas this weekend and will likely be added to the roster again as the 29th player for Tuesday’s doubleheader. He could pitch that day and then return to the fold once his 15 days on option are up on September 21.
But let’s not get too far ahead of things. The rotational machinations that the Blue Jays will be going through around this time between now and next week will be complicated enough as it is. In the meantime, the club charts its plans to get its best weapons into its most meaningful matches.
That means Manoah against the Rays next week, against the same Orioles after that, and the Rays again from there. Then it’s the Yankees for maybe the Orioles again. And if he continues to pitch the way he does, it would be the greatest phase of his life after that.