ANAHEIM, Calif. — The 29th start of Alek Manoah’s young career fell on the one-year anniversary of his big-league debut, and to contextualize how remarkable his performance since has been, consider that he appeared in only nine minor-league games before his promotion.
The cancellation of the 2020 minor-league season due to COVID-19 is partly responsible for that, of course, but that only adds to the uniqueness of his trajectory. While it’s easy to call him a unicorn, because in many ways he is, there are some wider lessons the Toronto Blue Jays can draw from his rapid ascent, too.
“Maybe it’ll change the progress of certain guys with the high-performance group and the way we monitor guys now,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “There’s no more cookie-cutter, this is what you need to do in the minor-leagues. If someone is physically ready, they’re bouncing back, they’re showing signs of being able to handle a workload, then those guys may be pushed a little bit more. If something’s coming from Alek’s situation, it would be that.”
Food for thought, certainly, given some of the big arms the Blue Jays currently have in A-ball, and as Manoah continues to cement himself among the game’s best young starters. His six innings of nine-strikeout brilliance in Friday night’s 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels was the latest demonstration of both how far he’s come, and how further development can still take him to another level.
“I don’t even know sometimes,” he replied when asked to make sense of how quickly he’s acclimated to the majors. “Whether it’s a good outing or a bad outing, just go into to the next one and try to build off the last one, continue to get better and win some ballgames.”
The Blue Jays have done plenty of that with the 24-year-old on the mound, as they’re now 6-3 in his starts this year and 22-7 since his arrival.
If he finds a way to even out his splits — he began the night with righties hitting .111/.146/.211 against him compared to .284/.351/.386 for lefties — he’ll be even tougher on opponents.
Friday’s outing fell along those lines as the Angels’ five lefty/switch-hitting batters were responsible for the three runs, two earned, against Manoah.
Andrew Velazquez cashed in Luis Rengifo, who singled and took second on a Raimel Tapia error in the second, Jared Walsh hit a solo shot in the third and Tyler Wade led off the fifth with his first homer of the season, as the southpaws went a combined 6-for-14. Meanwhile, righties Taylor Ward, Mike Trout, Max Stassi and Juan Lagares were 1-for-12 with eight strikeouts.
Most of the damage came on fastballs, save for Walsh’s homer, which came on a middle-down changeup — an offering that’s been a focal point for Manoah. Coming into the outing, lefties were batting just .235 against the pitch but were slugging it at a .471 clip, underlining both the potential and risk. His slider, so devastating against righties, was being hit at a .300/.500 rate versus southpaws while his sinker was .462/.462, although it’s also a work in progress which could turn into an equalizer if consistently harnessed.
Asked if he had something in the works for left-handed hitters, Manoah grinned and said, “I do, but I’m not going to tell you. But it’s coming.”
A low-and-away sinker to Walsh helped Manoah get a critical out in the fifth with some help from Bo Bichette.
Trout doubled with one out in the inning and took third when Lourdes Gurriel Jr., threw to an uncovered second base as the Blue Jays were in a four-man outfield and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was late covering. Then, with the infield in, Bichette fielded a 109.1 m.p.h. Walsh grounder and threw home to Alejandro Kirk, who tagged Trout at the plate.
He was initially called safe but replay overturned the call.
“That was a great play by Bichette making the throw and a great tag by Kirky,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “It was a big play in the game.”
Gurriel had tied the game 2-2 in the top half of the fifth with a run-scoring double, his first RBI since May 14. A pinch-hit Matt Chapman RBI single in the seventh tied the game 3-3 and Gurriel delivered a single in the ninth that was bobbled by Lagares in right, allowing Kirk to score the go-ahead run in the ninth.
Led by Gurriel, the bottom four hitters in the Blue Jays lineup combined for nine hits, the type of output they’ve long been missing.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “It’s not the same when you’ve got three guys pretty much doing it all — Vladdy, Bo, (George) Springer — and then if we don’t score there, OK, now we have to wait for them to hit again. It’s very hard. Now that everybody is doing their part, of course it’s less stress for everyone, less pressure.”
Jordan Romano then struck out the side in the ninth, getting pinch-hitter Shohei Ohtani swinging on a 96.5 m.p.h. heater above the zone for the final out as the Blue Jays won for the seventh time in the past 10 games after a lengthy skid.
Manoah, as he usually is when he takes the mound, was front and centre once again, one year after he stormed onto the scene with a gem at Yankee Stadium.
“I spoke to my mom this morning a little bit about it and kind of just reflected on the year we’ve had,” he said, “and super grateful, super blessed for everything we’ve been able to do and super excited about what’s coming.”