Manoah displays grit as sensational season continues

May 28th, 2022

ANAHEIM -- What does Alek Manoah think of his first year in the Major Leagues, one that’s seen the 23-year-old become not only one of the most crucial members of the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, but one of the most consistently impressive arms in MLB?

“I don’t even know sometimes,” he admitted, following Toronto’s 4-3 win over the Angels on Friday at Angel Stadium.

Making the 29th start of his young career, Manoah shook off some shaky defense and the first multi-homer game he’s surrendered since June 19 of last season, toughing it out for six innings to keep the Blue Jays in the game. Through nine starts this season, Manoah has thrown at least five innings and allowed no more than two earned runs in each outing -- by any definition, the production of an ace.

He struck out eight of the first nine Angels he faced, reaching a new season-high in that category before the fourth inning. He credited the strikeout spike to a renewed focus on his slider, which was the putaway pitch for six of the eight K's. Overall, Manoah threw his slider 37 times in 98 total pitches, coaxing 20 swings and nine whiffs with the pitch.

Manoah, whose ERA now sits at 1.77 (third-best in MLB), didn’t get the victory, but were it not for his gritty effort and ability to shrug off a trio of mistakes by his defense, things could have ended much differently.

Facing Angels rookie Chase Silseth, Toronto's offense was a bit stalled to start. A trio of Blue Jays grounded into double plays in the first three innings, with Alejandro Kirk’s in the second inning scoring a run and staking Manoah to an early lead.

By the third, Manoah’s slim 1-0 lead had become a 2-1 deficit, as Jared Walsh crushed a solo homer on a 1-2 changeup (just one of eight Manoah threw on the evening). Lourdes Gurriel Jr. tied it up again in the fifth with an RBI double, plating Kirk, before Tyler Wade put the Angels back in front by depositing a 3-1 fastball down the right-field line for his first homer of the year.

That’s where things stood until the seventh when the Blue Jays got Manoah off the hook. Singles from pinch-hitter Danny Jansen and Gurriel put two runners on for another pinch-hitter, Matt Chapman, who hit a 3-1 sinker from lefty Aaron Loup up the middle 106.5 mph off the bat. It was too much for Luis Rengifo to corral, scoring Bradley Zimmer to knot things up at 3-3. It was all Toronto would score in the frame, but it was enough to keep Manoah from being a hard-luck loser on the night.

“You don’t teach that,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of Manoah’s ability to get tougher on the mound as the game progressed. “It’s his game. Even though he had 90-something pitches, he could go back. And he did it. He gave us a chance.”

Faced with high traffic on the basepaths, Manoah buckled down and showed the fortitude that’s made him an anchor of the staff, navigating his way out of a few jams by limiting the Angels offense to a 1-for-7 mark with runners in scoring position.

As much as Manoah was crucial to the victory, the same can be said for Gurriel -- whose third hit of the night pushed across the decisive run. Facing Angels closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth, Gurriel slapped an opposite-field single to right, and when it wasn’t fielded cleanly by Juan Lagares. Kirk -- who singled and was moved to second on a perfect sacrifice bunt from Zimmer -- motored home to plate the go-ahead run.

For Gurriel, it was his best game at the plate in weeks. He came into the contest scuffling, entering 5-for-45 in his past 14 games dating back to May 5. Friday marked his first three-hit game of the season and first multi-hit game since April 30.

Through translator Hector Lebron, Gurriel explained that he’s spent the past few weeks of this rough patch working on his strike-zone approach at the plate. “Also, concentration, I have to be concentrating in order for me to get good swings.”

Gurriel also spoke of the Blue Jays’ offensive approach as a group: “Everybody’s trying to do their part. Before, it was maybe one or two [players], but now it’s everybody doing their part. I think that’s going to help us get going like we’ve been playing lately.”

Flame-throwing closer Jordan Romano then set down the Angels in succession to seal the win, striking out Brandon Marsh, Velazquez and pinch-hitter Shohei Ohtani, all swinging, to lock down the save and secure at least a split in the four-game series. Overall, the Blue Jays have won three straight.

But it wouldn’t have gotten to that point if not for Manoah, who steered the Blue Jays’ ship straight when those early errors and inability to get key hits threw it off course. Toronto hopes it was just the latest in what will be an extended line of stabilizing performances from its young stud.

“I spoke to my mom a little bit about it this morning, we reflected on the year we’ve had,” Manoah said when asked if he had taken stock of his fast rise in the first calendar year of his career. “Super grateful, super blessed, for everything we’ve been able to do, and super excited about what’s to come.”