Solid 'pen effort leads to Gurriel's walk-off hit

August 20th, 2020

was the walk-off hero on Thursday in Buffalo, chopping an unlikely single over the third baseman’s head in the bottom of the seventh inning after the Blue Jays battled back late thanks to yet another fantastic performance from the bullpen.

Toronto’s relievers struck out eight batters over just 3 1/3 innings of scoreless work in the 3-2 win over the Phillies in the first game of a doubleheader, as that young and hard-throwing group continues to be the story of the season for the Blue Jays, who found their way back to .500.

The relief pitchers will need some help eventually, though, as Chase Anderson lasted just 3 2/3 innings in front of the bullpen. This falls in line with a rotation that’s averaged just over 4 1/3 innings per start in 2020, which has happened for a variety of reasons.

Anderson is more understandable, as he’s still building up after a strained oblique in Summer Camp. There have been poor outings along the way, of course, to go along with injuries and some less likely factors, like Hyun Jin Ryu being removed one frame early due to a long half-inning by the offense and Matt Shoemaker being ejected early in his last outing. Regardless of how it’s happened, though, this Blue Jays team needs to see a starter work into the seventh inning for the first time.

Entering play on Thursday, Blue Jays starters were throwing an average of 17.46 pitches per inning, ranking them 25th in MLB. Anderson had one of those long innings in the third, needing 27 pitches before escaping with a double play.

One thing that’s saved the Blue Jays is the group of young starters they have pitching in relief roles this season, including Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch and Ryan Borucki. Their ability to pitch multiple innings has been incredibly valuable, especially at the level they’ve done it, and it’s typically bridged the gap to a strong back end of the bullpen.

The Blue Jays have obsessively gathered starting-pitching depth in recent years, and if they’re active at this year’s Aug. 31 Trade Deadline, that’s where general manager Ross Atkins would expect to be shopping again.

“If I had to say just one, it would be starting pitching,” Atkins said Thursday. “If there’s ways to continue to build upon that depth, we will look to do that. Our bullpen has actually been one of the strengths of the team this year and has been very effective, but at the same time, thinking about pitching and preventing runs is where the focus will be.”

Coming out of Thursday’s doubleheader against the Phillies, the Blue Jays head to St. Petersburg to play the Rays and won’t have a day off until Sept. 10. They’re also scheduled to play all 10 of their games against the Yankees over an 18-day span in September, so the Blue Jays need their high-leverage arms to have some gas left in the tank.

The bullpen effort behind Anderson featured the long-awaited Major League debut of Julian Merryweather, who came over from Cleveland in the Josh Donaldson trade back in 2018. Merryweather worked his way back from Tommy John surgery and pitched just six innings in the Minors last season, but he impressed the Blue Jays through Spring Training and Summer Camp.

Working in a shortened role after developing as a starter, Merryweather has seen his velocity tick up. The 28-year-old averaged 97.5 mph with his fastball, giving the Blue Jays 1 1/3 scoreless innings with three strikeouts.