BOSTON – This early in the season, managers are typically content with five innings from their starting pitchers. Spring was short, workloads are managed carefully and bullpens are bigger than ever. Anything beyond the sixth inning is a bonus. Expecting eight? Not likely. Nine? Literally hasn’t happened in MLB this year.
Yet on Thursday afternoon at Fenway Park, Kevin Gausman took the mound in the ninth inning to at least try for a complete game. One pitch and one single later, he gave way to closer Jordan Romano, but not before delivering the single best outing of the Blue Jays’ season and one of the best performances of his career.
Gausman attacked Boston’s hitters from start to finish Thursday, allowing just seven singles over the course of eight-plus innings of one-run ball. The result: a 3-2 Blue Jays win that Romano saved despite allowing the tying run to reach third.
It’s the first of two consecutive starts against the Red Sox for Gausman, who’s certainly no stranger to the AL East after pitching for the Orioles from 2013-18. Yet back then, he was a traditional starter with a good splitter. Now, he’s content to let his breaking pitches take centre stage, as he did on Thursday when exactly half of the 88 pitches he threw were either splitters or sliders.
The combination was more than the Red Sox could handle. They were off-balance all afternoon, striking out eight times against Gausman without drawing a single walk.
Thanks to Gausman’s strong outing, the Blue Jays secured a series win in their first meeting with the 2022 Red Sox, who will be visiting Toronto next week for a series that will feature Gausman but not Boston’s Tanner Houck, who’s choosing to remain unvaccinated instead of crossing the border with his team.
So far this season, the Blue Jays have three series wins, along with a four-game split with the Yankees. By no means are they playing up to their full potential – who had Zack Collins batting cleanup this early in the season? Or Gosuke Katoh and Bradley Zimmer rounding out the starting nine? But to be 8-5 without Teoscar Hernandez, Danny Jansen and Hyun-Jin Ryu is encouraging.
For a while, the Blue Jays worried they’d be without another one of their stars. George Springer left Wednesday’s game after taking a 94 m.p.h. fastball off of his right forearm, but X-rays confirmed that he had simply suffered a bad bruise and he was able to pinch-hit and play right field Thursday. Until the Blue Jays heard the good news, manager Charlie Montoyo had the status of his centre fielder in the back of his mind.
“The whole game I was thinking about it,” Montoyo recalled. “We don’t need to lose George Springer right now and thankfully nothing’s broken and we should be fine.”
Offensively, the Blue Jays didn’t manage much against the Red Sox despite multi-hit games from Raimel Tapia, Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman. One Toronto run came on an eminently catchable 43-foot pop-up off Chapman’s bat and another came on a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. sacrifice fly.
The Blue Jays’ first run was more noteworthy because of who scored it. Katoh made the most of his first big-league start, drawing a third-inning walk then scoring the first run of his big-league career on a Tapia single.
When Katoh first joined the Blue Jays, he was a little apprehensive about joining a group that already appeared close-knit. But his locker ended up beside Springer’s and the veteran centre fielder has since made a point of easing the rookie’s transition to the majors on and off the field.
“Just this sense of belonging,” Katoh said. “It’s tough being in the role that I am and being a rookie to fit in but he really went out of his way to let me know that I belonged here. Not just in the big-leagues but in this clubhouse.”
“I was one of those (backup) guys, so I know exactly how he feels.” said Montoyo, who got two hits in his five major-league at-bats. “Me personally, that made my life. I got the baseball. Hopefully he gets many more, but at least if he gets that one it’s just going to make his life a lot better. Like, ‘OK, I made it, I got a base hit.’”
That first big-league hit will have to wait a little longer for Katoh, but there’s no doubt he contributed Thursday nonetheless.
From here, the Blue Jays go to Houston, where a matchup with Justin Verlander awaits Friday night. In other words, more challenges are coming for a Blue Jays team that’s already seen – and overcome – its fair share of them.