The offence returns and Kikuchi shines as the Jays begin homestand with a badly needed win
On the similarities between Yusei Kikuchi and Robbie Ray, a little Bo-powered offence, reliever worries, Cavan Biggio, Ray's no-show, Heineman, prospects, Berríos, defence, the schedule, and more!
The roof was open, the offence showed up, Yusei Kikuchi was great, the Jays’ bullpen held it together, and the team got a big win in their return home after a disastrous road trip. Monday night felt like the way things were always supposed to be for this team.
So let’s talk about it! Here’s three up!
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Up: Yusei Kikuchi (again!)
Yusei Kikuchi allowed just three hard hit balls over six innings of work in what was his best appearance so far for the Blue Jays. And while I’m generally the first to push back on the narrative that Pete Walker is some kind of pitching whisperer mastermind, and quick to remind people that he’s just the tip of the spear, with a whole organization behind him, he really does deserve some real credit here.
Robbie Ray’s name has been associated with the Jays’ signing of Kikuchi since day one, given his Cy Young campaign for the Jays last season and the similarities between the two in terms of raw stuff from the left side. Clearly this was part of the club’s sales pitch to the former Mariner, and evidently they had some very sound reasons for that.
I picked out one especially good Ray start from last year — July 11 in Tampa, when Ray pitched seven one-hit shutout innings and fanned 11 — and the similarities to Kikuchi’s Monday start are actually pretty remarkable.
Ray (7/11/21): 94.4 mph, 2,258 rpm, 12 v-break, 10 h-break
Kikuchi (5/16/22): 94.9 mph, 2,340 rpm, 13 v-break, 12 h-break
Ray (7/11/21): 88.2 mph, 2,168 rpm, 27 v-break, 1 h-break
Kikuchi: (5/16/22): 87.8 mph, 2,424 rpm, 31 v-break, 2 h-break
Ray used his fastball 76% of the time in that game, and his slider 22% of the time. Kikuchi on Monday night, because he also has a changeup to mix in, used the fastball a little less, with it coming in at 64% of the time, and the slider at 28%. So, not exactly the same there, but another thing that's notable is the high percentage of called strikes they picked up on the fastball — 16 for Ray on 78 fastballs (20.5%) and 12 for Kikuchi on 58 fastballs (20.7%).
Anyway, Kikuchi gave the Jays six excellent innings, allowing no runs on one hit and three walks while striking out six. It was very, very encouraging stuff.
Up: Bo Bichette
The Jays’ offence finally showed up for this one, and while there were big hits up and down the lineup — Matt Chapman's no-doubter in the second, Raimel Tapia's huge single for an insurance run in the sixth, Alejandro Kirk with a big two-run single (after a wild pitch removed the possibility of a double play, thankfully) in the seventh — but Bo Bichette has to be singled out for his contributions here, as he went 3-for-5 with a solo homer, two RBIs, and two runs scored.
Bichette made a couple slick plays with the glove, too — including a particularly tough one in a huge moment in the top of the seventh. After having pulled back a run on Eugenio Suárez's solo blast off of Trevor Richards, making it a 3-1 ballgame, the Mariners continued to threaten. A pair of Richards walks and a single to Adam Frazier from Richards' replacement, Yimi Garcia, brought Abraham Toro to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out. He flied out to shallow centre — not deep enough for the lead runner to score. The next batter, Ty France, bounced one softly to short. Bichette not only had to charge it, but he had to reconfigure his throw because the umpire — one of only three working this game because one member of the crew was unable to make the trip at the last minute — was in an unusual position that blocked the path for the throw to first base.
Bichette pulled the play off exquisitely, and the Jays would add a pair in the bottom of the frame to put the game essentially out of reach.
That first inning homer, though, felt even more important for a club that had been shutout the day prior and has been struggling through long stretches of impotent offence this month — the depths of which I tried to give some perspective to in a piece on Monday afternoon.
Uh, not exactly a great pitch from M’s starter Chris Flexen, but we’ll take it!
An early lead! What a concept!
Up: What a relief!
The Jays made the surprising announcement on Monday afternoon that Tim Mayza has landed on the injured list with forearm inflammation, which certainly gave a blow to the club’s sneakily struggling bullpen. Then, with the game against the Mariners already underway, Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae dropped a bomb on us.
That is… not what you want to hear.
Fortunately, Romano popped up, in uniform, on the bullpen mound later in the game — though he wasn’t actually throwing. Afterwards we learned that the evaluation had nothing to do with his arm or shoulder or anything else like that. He was simply being checked out for a non-COVID illness and is currently day-to-day.
That’s huge news, because as we saw in the game, with both Mayza and Romano unavailable, things can get a bit shaky back there. As mentioned above, Richards was shaky in this one, as he occasionally is, managing to retire just one of the four batters he faced (though he at least sequenced the two walks he issued correctly — they both came after Suárez’s blast). Garcia got the job done afterwards, but continued to struggle missing bats, running his season total to 14 innings now, with just eight strikeouts to his credit.
There are certainly capable guys back there to fill in the gaps when needed. Adam Cimber has been great. David Phelps has looked better in his last two outings after going on a six appearance run in which he had four walks to just one strikeout over 5 1/3 innings. Julian Merryweather remains an arm I’m very interested in, given how, as I wrote the other day, he’s been fine with the bases empty but a disaster with runners on — something that I have to believe is fixable. And Ryan Borucki put in another very encouraging performance on Monday, too.
But obviously it’s massive that Romano won’t be following Mayza to the injured list, as we all feared for a couple hours on Monday. Losing Mayza is a big enough blow as it is, as he and Romano are clearly the Jays’ two best relievers. They are the only two producing either a whiff or a called strike on more than 30% of their pitches, the two best in terms of K-BB%, two of the hardest throwers in a bullpen that ranks just 24th in MLB by average fastball velocity, and the two guys Charlie Montoyo — correctly — trusts in late game situations.
Now let’s just hope that Romano’s illness doesn’t last and that Mayza’s inflammation isn’t anything more than that.
• The Jays made the somewhat surprising announcement on Monday afternoon that Cavan Biggio, who has been languishing on the COVID-IL for weeks, having seen his last bit of big league action way back on April 24, has been activated and optioned to Buffalo.
Credit to the team and to him for going this route, as he certainly could use the opportunity to get regular at-bats, get some confidence, and potentially — hopefully — work him into a spot where he can actually be useful to the big league club. With the way Santiago Espinal is going, those at-bats were simply not going to be available to him in the majors. Nor should they have been, considering how awful he looked prior to the illness. Biggio was slashing .043/.214/.043 (-5 wRC+) over just 28 April plate appearances — a consequence of it becoming so apparent so quickly that Espinal needed to be the club's everyday second baseman.
Things have gone better in Buffalo for Biggio in his brief time there (.385/.500/.538 in 16 PA), and while I remain skeptical about what his ultimate role is and how well he'll be able to handle big league pitching in the long-term, I think it would be foolish to count him out. Especially since a guy like the 2019 or 2020 version of Biggio would be a massive asset to this lineup.
• Speaking of Robbie Ray (weren’t we?), the third pitcher in Blue Jays history to have won the Cy Young award for the club did not make the road trip with his new team, the Mariners.
He is not on the restricted list, as would normally be the case for unvaccinated players who are unable to enter Canada (as is highly likely the case), but — though his vaccination status is technically unknown — that seems to be entirely because of a surprisingly smart rule of MLB's that doesn't allow starting pitchers who've pitched within four days of their trip across the border to be placed on it. Doing so would have given the Mariners a competitive advantage by adding another pitcher to take his place. Ray pitched on Sunday.
It is, of course, not just disappointing that he'd be one of those unvaccinated boneheads who couldn't give a shit about the health of his community and the people around him, but that he'd miss the opportunity to be appreciated for his accomplishment by the fans here in Toronto.
Frankly, I’m starting to think we should focus less on Marcus Semien's errant throw against the Tigers when we think about how the Jays missed the playoffs by one game last year, and more about how Ray had a 5.06 ERA, 7.23 FIP, and walked nine batters in 16 innings over his final three starts last September! *COUGH*
• The Jays announced on Monday that catcher Tyler Heineman, who was optioned to Buffalo on Saturday to make way for the return of Danny Jansen, has been claimed on waivers by the Pirates. I’m not sure anyone had any idea that he was on waivers to begin with, but it makes sense since the club needed to clear a 40-man spot to make room to activate Biggio. Godspeed, Heiny!
• Scott Mitchell of TSN reports on some minor league promotions, telling us that Yosver Zulueta is tentatively expected to make his Vancouver debut on Thursday, with Ricky Tiedemann following him on Friday. Exciting times for the Canadians! Meanwhile, Mitchell adds: “Expect a High-A starter or two to move to Double-A, with Maximo Castillo also being promoted to Triple-A.”
Castillo has 35 strikeouts in 29 innings over six starts at Double-A, having posted a 3.10 ERA for the Fisher Cats so far. Take away a six-run blow-up on April 23 and his numbers look even better.
• José Berríos gets the start on Tuesday night for the Jays, and will be looking to build off an outing against the Yankees last week that was better than his line (five earned runs over 5 1/3 innings) looked. One area where he’s yet to really improve, however, is in terms of generating strikeouts. I checked out the data at Props.cash — player prop research made easy! — for a visualization of how his strikeout totals have changed from last year to this and the difference is pretty stark.
I wrote about Berríos a little bit back on Friday, and noted that he seems to have been tinkering with his release point a little bit. Hopefully he’s finally started to unlock the subtle changes he needs to get him back on track, because those totals — like some of his results so far — aren’t so hot!
• Interesting note from Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith on how the Blue Jays aligned their outfield defence on Monday after they took the lead.
Teoscar has clearly earned some real trust out there — and considering how far he’s come as a defender over the last couple years, it’s well deserved. Now if only he could quit it with the infield flies!!
• Another note from Benny Fresh:
• We’ll end this one on a good note. Things are about to get better, folks!
Next up: Tuesday, 7:07 PM ET: Jays vs. Mariners (José Berríos vs. Logan Gilbert), TV: Sportsnet, Radio: Sportsnet 590
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