Entering Wednesday’s series finale against the Yankees at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., the Blue Jays planned to give starter Tanner Roark two trips through the order before handing off to Ross Stripling as a bulk reliever out of the bullpen. Roark didn’t know it, and he didn’t particularly like it when he was pulled after just 68 pitches.
Prior to taking questions after the 7-2 loss, Roark had something to say off the top. He felt that he was taken out too early, and coming from a workhorse pitcher who rarely goes long without saying the word “grit”, it’s understandable.
Besides, Roark doesn’t feel like he runs on regular gasoline.
“I’m what you would call a Diesel engine,” Roark said. “I start off slow, then get better as you go on throughout the game. Fourth inning, six or seven pitches, now I’ve got six days to sit on that, which doesn’t sit well with me, obviously.”
There’s no mystery as to why teams are growing more hesitant to let their starters face a lineup for a third time. Like most pitchers, opponents’ batting average and OPS both rise against Roark from the first time through to the second and the third times. Those are the innings he craves, though, and he wants to taste them again after not pitching past five innings this season.
Roark understands the analytics, and he made it clear that he’s spoken with manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker, whom he says are doing their best. Frustrations like this are common in a Major League season, too, especially when you’re playing 28 games in 27 days, haven’t had a scheduled off-day since Aug. 13 and are calling a Triple-A stadium home for a shortened season.
Still, Roark knows who he is, and four innings isn’t his style.
“Just because the computers are saying something different, I hate it,” Roark said. “I’m old school. They signed me here for a reason, to not go three or four innings and throw a certain amount of pitches. I throw a lot of pitches. I try to go as deep as I can.”
When Roark was signed this offseason, the label of “innings eater” was the major selling point. Home runs were a worry, and he gave up another two on Wednesday to go with two walks in the first two innings, but he is the type of reliable arm the Blue Jays coveted to bring steady innings to their rotation. Neither side had a 5.60 ERA in mind, though, and it’s critical that they find a way to make this work over Roark’s final few starts with the playoffs fast approaching.
Playoff plans are a good problem to have, and even with Wednesday’s loss, the Blue Jays took two of three from the Yankees and sit two games above them in the American League East, trailing only the Rays. No Blue Jays starter has thrown a pitch in the seventh inning or touched 100 pitches in 2020, which is by design, but how that’s managed will be under the microscope down the stretch. Often, Montoyo’s most difficult decision is whether to go from his starter to a high-leverage arm and then a bulk reliever, or to go straight from a starter to a bulk reliever like he did with Roark and Stripling, saving his high-leverage arms for the later innings.
Following Wednesday’s game, Montoyo understood where Roark was coming from, but the manager reiterated that it was his plan going in.
“I talked to him after the game. He was fine with me, but I like the fact that they get upset,” Montoyo said. “[Taijuan] Walker was upset the other day. That’s how it goes. That’s why we’re doing fine, because we’ve got guys like that who want to battle. They don’t want to come out of the game and I love that.”
It’s important to note that Roark’s feelings seemed to be coming from Roark the teammate, not the individual. He said multiple times that his main goal was to save Toronto’s bullpen, which has done an exceptional job carrying such a heavy load behind these shorter starts in 2020. For years in Washington, Oakland and Cincinnati, Roark was a long reliever’s best friend, typically giving a steady six innings and bridging the gap to those late-inning arms.
The Blue Jays will enjoy a rare off-day on Thursday and have another one scheduled on the Monday following this weekend’s three-game series against the Mets in Buffalo, which will give that group of relievers a well-deserved opportunity to come up for air.