HOUSTON — We’ve seen these Alek Manoah exits before. A little scattershot out of doors. A little all over the place early. Murmuring to himself; hitting the glove; kicking at his landing spot on the mound.
It was just one of those days on Saturday, when Manoah doubled to the Houston Astros in the first, allowing Michael Brantley to reach a misplaced heater after going ahead, 0-2. And then Alex Bregman took it deep left on another 0-2 pitch, this time a sinker that didn’t run far enough into the third baseman’s hands.
But then we saw that other thing we’ve seen from the Toronto Blue Jays’ young righty so many times before: a rally. A different guy in the second. A more aggressive version of himself, hitting the zone with fastballs that were suddenly going 95-96 mph after sitting around 93-94 an inning earlier. A 27-pitch first inning all but disappeared with a 12-pitch second and 11-pitch third. A blink of an eye and it’s the sixth, and Manoah is still up there, throwing cheese high and sweeping sliders that slide from strike to ball as bats whiz by.
It was so on Saturday, as Manoah allowed only those two first-inning runs in his six innings, retiring 16 of the last 20 batters he faced in the Blue Jays’ 3-2 victory. Manoah struck out five and walked none, scoring seven strikes on his four-seam swing and three more on his slider.
Typically a guy who leans heavily on his double-seam, the adjustment Manoah seemed to make after Bregman’s home run was to throw more of the four-seam variety, which he used for more than half of his 95 pitches. And they got firmer as the outing wore on, hitting 96 mph multiple times in the third and fourth innings. Manoah’s last two pitches of the day, a pair of four-seams for Nike Goodrum, came out at 95.1 and 95.6 mph.
“The thing about that kid is he throws harder when you’re about to get him out,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It’s fun to watch. It was almost strange when he gave up both runs. Like, ‘OK, what just happened?’ But that’s a good lineup and it’s going to allow runs from time to time. But it’s been so good and it’s one of the main reasons we won.”
Manoah completed six innings for the third time in three starts this season, and the 14th in 23 starts since making his MLB debut last May. He has now done it on a day when he threw nearly 30 pitches in the first inning, a day when he walked six and a day when he walked three with two hit batters.
Manoah’s stuff speaks for itself. But his ability to stop damage early and still give the team a long, quality start is part of what separates him from other starters his age. He doesn’t implode when things go wrong; he doesn’t let things go off the rails. He finds ways to move on.
“The biggest thing was being able to go out there and control the game, control the pace and control as much as I could,” Manoah said. “When you go up against a lineup like that, you have to give and take where you can. So just being able to sit there and control the game after that [first inning] It was the biggest.”
Meanwhile, the offense came quickly as George Springer led off the game, his first against the Astros since joining the Blue Jays before the 2021 season, with a long opposite-field home run. That’s how you’d dream of a plate appearance like that, right? But Springer is the kind of person who makes dreams like that come true.
“Yes it’s weird. It’s a pretty special moment for me individually. It’s great. I really wasn’t trying to do it. But I will take it,” she said. “I just want to hit the ball hard. I know who is behind me. I know what my job is. And to hit something hard, hopefully start something. And I was able to do it.”
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. put up another in the sixth with the shortest sacrifice fly I’ve ever seen, when Astros second baseman Nico Goodrum made a play while colliding with his shortstop, Jeremy Pena, that allowed Bo Bichette to run home from the third. And Santiago Espinal provided the winning run, lifting a solo shot 364 feet into left field out of Crawford Boxes for his second home run in as many games.
We all know about Espinal’s added mass and extra power. it is produced, but this was not a case of paying dividends. This was Espinal working with a diligent, competitive approach from the eighth hole, firing up three hard fastballs before getting a low slider that he could throw into those left-field seats.
“He was a fastball and a slider. I was focusing mainly on trying to attack the fastball,” Espinal said. “And with two strikes, I was trying to protect myself and get a good pitch to hit. I saw the slider right away and got a good swing. It was a good feeling, man.”
Leave the rest to a bullpen that began the day with the lowest batting average in the American League and the second-lowest WHIP, pitching three scoreless innings and one hit behind Manoah. And they weren’t the usual suspects, as Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza were unavailable, leaving the late-game point leads to Yimi Garcia and Adam Cimber.
Traditionally, you’d expect Cimber to have gotten ahead of Garcia, who had 15 saves for the Miami Marlins last season. But with the heart of Houston’s order in the eighth, Montoyo pulled off a lever arm, deploying Garcia against Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Yuli Gurriel in the eighth, before allowing Cimber to earn his third career save in the eighth. ninth against bottom. of the Astros lineup.
Such is the luxury the Blue Jays have in their bullpen right now, with several relievers starting the season fit and healthy: Romano’s results are undeniable; Garcia has yet to allow a run in seven appearances; Cimber has a 2.25 ERA over eight innings; Mayza, Trevor Richards and David Phelps have pitched at least five innings with an ERA under 1.60.
Trent Thornton has provided length, and he did so in leverage on Friday, pitching a 1.13 ERA over eight innings. And while Julian Merryweather has had his setbacks, he’s still throwing in the upper 90s with a changeup that comes in 15 mph slower, and he has the benefit of breathing room to figure things out while the rest of the bullpen carries the load.
There’s hardly a wrong path late in the game for Montoyo to take these days with the group throwing so well collectively. Of course, anyone who has watched a baseball season knows that things are unlikely to stay this good for long. He is a bullpen. He is volatile by nature. But with the Blue Jays adamantly refusing to play anything other than close games early in the season (nine of Toronto’s 10 wins have been by three runs or fewer), the club will surely put up with it while it lasts.
“It seems that they feed on each other. They get big outs on big points. I have all the faith in those guys in the world,” Springer said. “That’s why they’re on our team and why they’re in the places they are. It’s amazing to see them work. And pass the ball to whoever’s down there. It’s huge.”