TORONTO – Apply the usual caveats about how it’s still early in camp and the perils in making too much of spring training results, but consecutive solid outings from Steven Matz may bode well for a Toronto Blue Jays rotation with several moving parts.
The left-hander impressed again Tuesday over three shutout innings during a 4-1 Grapefruit League win over the Philadelphia Phillies, and there was process to latch onto beyond the outcome.
Matz generated nine swinging strikes and nine foul balls over 43 pitches with a fastball that averaged 94.8 m.p.h. and a changeup he’s thrown more often over the past six years. Combined with some solid command, his showing thus far is solidifying the rotation spot he’d been earmarked for – but not guaranteed – following his acquisition from the New York Mets.
With Nate Pearson’s groin injury likely opening up a turn on the opening day roster, the Blue Jays can breathe a little easier with Matz, at least so far, looking more like an answer than a question.
“He’s looked really good,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s around the zone with all his pitches, throwing strikes, he looks like he’s in command. That’s good news for us.”
Pearson threw at 120 feet Tuesday and is slated to do so again Thursday ahead of a hoped-for side session this weekend. By then only two-and-a-half weeks will remain ahead of the April 1 season opener at Yankee Stadium, which is why president and CEO Mark Shapiro told Lead Off on Sportsnet 590 Tuesday morning that “it’s hard to see Nate getting built up,” although he added “it’s possible still because we’re so early in camp.”
Given Pearson’s importance, expect the Blue Jays to err on the side of caution, and Shapiro said that “right now Ross (Stripling) is in the rotation.” The right-hander is set to make his first spring start Wednesday against the Baltimore Orioles after his arrival to Dunedin, Fla. was delayed when the recent storm in Texas pushed back his wife Shelby’s delivery of the family’s first child.
Stripling isn’t expected to have any issues playing catch up, but if he does, then things get interesting. Julian Merryweather (back) isn’t expected to pitch in a game this week, Tom Hatch only makes his first start Friday while minor-league depth signing Tommy Milone gets his first chance to make an impression later in that game against Pittsburgh.
Anthony Kay and T.J. Zeuch are among the other arms being stretched out this spring, but the Blue Jays don’t want their depth tested this early. Hence, Matz looking like he’s recovered the sink on a two-seamer that flattened out last year and generally commanding the strike zone is a sigh-of-relief development.
“I’m feeling really good,” said Matz. “Just to be able to throw all my pitches for strikes in any count, that’s huge for me at this time of year. I can really build off that.”
DIAMOND MOVES: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. logged 10 innings at first base for the Blue Jays during the 2019 season and picked up another frame there last year, so his return to the infield isn’t completely unfamiliar. Still, his five innings of work at first Tuesday were a bit more significant, a first step in opening up the option of him seeing some action there in season.
“I haven’t played the infield (consistently) in two years, it’s not easy, it takes a lot of work,” Gurriel said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “But I’m going to be ready for whenever the team needs me to play there. I’m going to keep working hard and whenever they put me at first I’m going to do the best I can.”
In the third, Gurriel fielded a Travis Jankowski grounder and flipped to Matz for one out, and then snagged a Ronald Torreyes foul popper for the second out of the inning. The bigger challenge for him so far is fighting the urge to chase balls to his right and end up out of position, something Vladimir Guerrero Jr., did a few times last year.
“He looked really comfortable,” said Charlie Montoyo. “It’s almost like an infielder playing first. He’s got good hands and he did a nice job today.”
SPRINGER SCRATCHED: George Springer was a late scratch Tuesday when he felt some tightness in his left abdomen after his pre-game workouts.
“We decided OK, it’s March 9, there’s no reason for you to play if you feel something,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “But he had a full workout and he should be alright.”
For now, the Blue Jays are listing the star centre-fielder as day-to-day.
• Vladimir Guerrero Jr., logged six innings at third base, cleanly fielding two groundballs for outs. He also singled, scored, delivered a sacrifice fly and walked.
• Lefty Ryan Borucki topped out at 97.7 m.p.h. and averaged 96.8 on 10 fastballs among his 16 pitches but gave up a run on two hits with two strikeouts.
• Canadian Jordan Romano hit 98.7 while striking out the side around a hit and a walk in the ninth.
• During his appearance on Lead Off Tuesday morning, Mark Shapiro had an interesting thought on the importance of hoarding pitchers this season. “Depth is going to provide a major competitive advantage to the teams that have alternatives because we’re going to have to have a lot of guys in there,” he said.