Taijuan Walker opened Friday’s 10-5 Blue Jays win over the Orioles with three perfect innings in his final tune-up of the season, and somehow, the news got even better from there.
Blue Jays No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson, back after missing over a month with a flexor strain, trotted in for his first relief appearance and uncorked a 100.1-mph fireball on his very first pitch. Moments later, Pearson set a new personal best with a 101.5-mph fastball to strike out Austin Hays, whose swing at the pitch up and out of the zone could best be described as self defense.
Not only was that a new high for Pearson, it was the hardest pitch thrown by a Blue Jays pitcher since tracking began in 2008, beating out a 101.2-mph pitch from Brandon Morrow back in 2014.
“Huge impact. You see it every year, there’s always a team that has that X-factor,” said Travis Shaw, who homered in the win, “that fresh arm, the starter who goes into the bullpen role and lets it eat. David Price did that with the Rays way back. You saw that with his first pitch tonight, it was 100 mph. An electric arm, it’s electric stuff and in short stints out of the bullpen he can just let it all go. That’s going to be a huge, huge key for us.”
Pearson’s triple-digit heat is no secret by now, but Friday’s timing was still a pleasant surprise for the Blue Jays. All along, Pearson has said that he typically gets stronger as the game goes on, often hitting the top end of his velocity closer to the middle innings. If he can do this right out of the gates, manager Charlie Montoyo suddenly has a new Ferrari in his garage for the postseason.
Walker typically would have pitched deeper into the game if the playoffs weren’t looming -- and if the Blue Jays weren’t already well on their way to a 10-5 win -- but there could be something more to the idea of Pearson following Robbie Ray. Consider comments from general manager Ross Atkins just prior to Friday’s game, and it hints at a much more aggressive pitching strategy than we’ve seen at points in the regular season.
“We have to continue to be open-minded and innovative,” Atkins said. “A great example of that was two nights ago with the Robbie Ray start, to bring in A.J. Cole to an exceptionally high-leverage spot and then go [Ross] Stripling. That was not your typical night of pitching. We have to be open-minded to different ways to put guys in great matchup situations where they can be successful.”
That game came just prior to the Blue Jays’ clinching a playoff spot, and while it ended in a blowout, the point Atkins is referencing came with the Blue Jays up 5-1 in the fifth inning. After Ray allowed the first two batters to reach, Montoyo turned to Cole, one of his top high-leverage arms, instead of jumping immediately to a “bulk” reliever.
Cole walked Aaron Judge to load the bases, but then retired the next three hitters he faced to escape the inning. It was one of the most impressive relief outings from any Blue Jays pitcher this season. High-leverage innings don’t always have to be the eighth or ninth. They happen when they happen, and if that’s the fifth inning, the Blue Jays are ready to adapt and attack.
Pearson tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings on 24 pitches Friday, so he could fill either the high-leverage role or the bulk role that follows in that example. The Blue Jays have plenty of options for both jobs, especially if the bullpen’s breakout star, Jordan Romano, is able to return from the injured list by Tuesday’s postseason opener.
Walker has seen the progression of pitching strategies since he joined the league in 2013, from the rise of openers to aggressive postseason setups like the Blue Jays envision. Friday’s short outing was done on purpose after Thursday’s clinch, but Walker also feels that Toronto’s very unique mix of pitchers affords him a certain level of freedom.
“As a starting pitcher, you can go out there and go as hard as you can for as long as you can, whether that be four innings, five innings or eight innings,” Walker said. “What benefits us is we have such a good bullpen. Half the guys in our bullpen used to be starters. I think it takes a little pressure off us starters. We don’t necessarily have to go as deep as we can when we have such a bullpen, we can just go out there and let it eat.”