Manoah's stuff flashes, but results still elusive in return

May 5th, 2024

WASHINGTON -- The Blue Jays aren’t asking for much.

Manoah hadn’t pitched in the big leagues for the Blue Jays since Aug. 10, 2023, and there have been moments since when it felt like we wouldn’t see him again in this uniform. The past year-plus has been so stunning and complicated. The path forward needs to be straighter, simpler.

The Blue Jays just need Alek Manoah to be the boring part of games. They just need him to be a sturdy supporting cast member. In Sunday’s 11-8 loss to the Nationals at Nationals Park, he wasn’t.

Manoah allowed seven runs (six earned) over four innings of work, capped by a five-run fourth inning that spiraled into his second home run allowed. There were some early flashes that were genuinely encouraging, including five strikeouts in Manoah’s first two innings, but the Blue Jays are long past looking for flashes.

“Today, he was as good as I’ve seen him stuff-wise in a while,” said manager John Schneider. “I think it’s just about being efficient with that stuff going forward and trying to get deeper into a game.”

Manoah pointed to more of a mental adjustment being needed than a physical one.

“I don’t think it’s a control thing,” Manoah said. “It was just me trying to be on the outside corner, trying to be too fine. It’s about understanding I’m not Greg Maddux. I’m not going to be Greg Maddux. My fastball has great life. I’ve just got to go out there and trust it.”

In those early innings, the bounce-back energy was contagious. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. launched a grand slam in the second inning, the fifth of his career and his first home run since April 10. It was the payoff from a very encouraging stretch for Guerrero, who is back to launching rockets, but Sunday was all about Manoah’s return. The long-term implications are so heavy.

The framing matters here, too. Manoah doesn’t need to be “back” in the context of his old self. It’s not realistic to expect anything in the same realm as the pitcher who finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2022 with a 2.24 ERA over 196 2/3 innings. Leave those top-end innings up to José Berríos, who is pitching like a man with Cy Young plans, or Kevin Gausman, who tends to find his way into that conversation each year and is turning the corner himself.

Success, in the context of 2024, is Manoah establishing himself as a No. 5 starter who may not dominate, but gives the Blue Jays reliable innings without blowing games. In a perfect world, he turns that into some momentum that helps cover for Yusei Kikuchi’s potential departure a year from now and Chris Bassitt’s following the 2025 season, but those are decades away at this point.

In another world, Sunday’s finale is an 8-2 or 8-4 win. The story would be a resurgent Blue Jays’ offense that just posted their highest run total in a game since April 6, led by Vladdy’s mighty slam. The story would be a series win. But it’s not.

The Blue Jays have options from here, beginning with the fact they have off days coming on Monday and Thursday. The Blue Jays could opt to have Manoah make his next start in Triple-A and re-evaluate from there, but would it really help Manoah to bounce him up and down? Sunday’s results aside, the Blue Jays need to continue to support him as a pitcher and do everything in their power to help him succeed.

Schneider shot down any possibility of Manoah’s stint being one-and-done, though. When asked if Manoah would stay in the rotation, he didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” Schneider said. “Yes.”

He’s optimistic, too, and points to two reasons just as quickly.

“Pretty simple, stuff and delivery,” Schneider said. “That’s what his downfall was last year, whether it was his velocity, his slider, his delivery not being in sync, whatever. We knew that was there. When he was on his rehab assignment, it was about what he was going to do with his stuff.”

The fact of the matter is that Manoah made Sunday’s start out of necessity. Yariel Rodríguez is on the IL with a back injury. Bowden Francis, who lost his rotation spot to Rodríguez, is on the IL. Top prospect Ricky Tiedemann is on the IL. Mitch White and Wes Parsons play for other teams now. The rotation depth the Blue Jays built has crumbled quickly.

Manoah can’t be the savior. That’s too much to ask, but the Blue Jays need more than what they got in Sunday’s return.