BRONX, N.Y. — Three established veterans are ahead of him in the rotation pecking order, but it was 24-year-old Alek Manoah playing the role of stopper and giving the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen the break it so badly needed.
Heading into the Bronx for an early-season four-game test against the division-rival New York Yankees, the Jays had gotten just 8.2 frames out of Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman and Hyun Jin Ryu to start the year, leaving a whole lot of innings for the ’pen to carry in the first series of the season against the Texas Rangers.
Manoah stopped that bleeding in Monday’s series opener, giving the Jays six desperately needed quality frames and allowing just one hit in a 3-0 victory.
It was an ace-like performance.
While Manoah battled his command at times, walking four, he also showed a velocity bump from last season and mixed in his changeup more than ever against Yanks lefties Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo, Aaron Hicks and Marwin Gonzalez.
Last year, Manoah’s four-seam fastball averaged 93.7 mph. On Monday, it was in the 95-mph range early on, and he mostly carried that through his outing.
“It plays heavy,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of Manoah’s heater. “He’s 93-94 mph, but it’s heavy. There’s a difference.”
But it’s the changeup usage that will be intriguing to monitor as Manoah navigates his second big-league season now that opposing teams and hitters have a bit of a book on him.
Becoming less predictable will be key.
“Learning when to mix it in, how to mix it in,” Manoah said after the win in the Bronx. “I feel like in college, I didn’t really need it. In the minor leagues, I didn’t really need it. Last year, I didn’t really need it a ton, but being able to mix that in and keep hitters off-balance will be huge.”
After using his fourth pitch 9.4 per cent of the time as a rookie, Manoah threw 15 changeups in his season debut Monday — 17 per cent of his 89 pitches on the night — and induced four whiffs.
If that pitch develops into even an average offering, there will no ceiling for Manoah, who might be the most important arm this rotation has a few months from now if he continues to do what he’s done in his 10 short months as a big leaguer.
“It’s come a long way,” Manoah said. “I’ve been telling you guys, man, the confidence is there and the movement is there. I feel really good throwing it. I’m going to go ahead and keep mixing that in.”
Talking to pitching coach Pete Walker prior to Monday’s tilt against the Yanks, he said Manoah has been tinkering with different grips since last season ended, trying to find some more comfort with the pitch.
Manoah wasn’t perfect on Monday, but he held a deep Yankees lineup to just one hit and continued to show his now trademark competitiveness, bearing down when it looked like the free passes might come back to bite him.
A web gem from Bo Bichette also helped him escape a bases loaded jam in the third inning.
“He just keeps improving,” Montoyo said of Manoah. “That’s a tough lineup and he was in charge the whole game. Then he lost It a little bit, lost his command, but he doesn’t panic. That’s why he got the job done, because he never panics. You don’t teach that. He has it.”
After throwing six scoreless innings in his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium last May, it was no coincidence Manoah was lined up for this series opener.
“I like Manoah making his first start anywhere, that’s how much I like him,” Montoyo said. “I just feel good when he’s on the mound. You can see it.
“He wanted to face the Yankees in spring training. That tells you everything about him, knowing that he was going to face them two weeks later. That’s just who he is. I love that about him.”
Manoah sure doesn’t shy away from a big stage.
“This is the mecca,” Manoah said of pitching in Yankee Stadium. “You want to come in and play hard. There’s always a lot of fans here. It’s an exciting ballpark to play in and something you dream of as a kid.”