ST. PETERSBURG -- Singling out Alek Manoah's best performance this season often feels like debating a great band’s best song, but Saturday night at Tropicana Field left no doubt. Manoah officially has his trademark moment of 2022.
Manoah delivered his masterpiece, shutting out the Rays over seven innings on a season-high 113 pitches in a 3-1 win. The impassioned right-hander has developed into an ace by every definition of the word, dragging his ERA down to 2.31 while rising to the biggest moments in the biggest games down the stretch. A pitcher built to compete in October, Manoah is flashing the potential to not only change a game, but an entire series.
The dominant outing kept the door propped open long enough for Whit Merrifield to blow it open, carrying the Blue Jays to a victory that they desperately needed.
"We have a great team," Manoah said. "Being able to come to battle with these guys every five or six days, it’s what I’ve dreamed of my whole life. Right here, this is what we work for. This is what all of the offseason training, the ups and downs, this is what it’s for right now. Being on that mound, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else."
Riding a 1-4 week that had dropped them back into a tie with the Rays (which they’d lose via tiebreaker), the win put the Blue Jays back on top of the AL Wild Card race by one game. Home-field advantage in the Wild Card Series is a priority for the Blue Jays, but avoiding another trip to Tropicana Field might be just as important.
Who better to have on the mound than Manoah in these moments?
"It’s just unbelievable how he can kick it into another gear with runners in scoring position," said interim manager John Schneider. "When he hits that third and fourth inning, he turns into a different guy. He continues to impress. I hope everyone watching back home is enjoying this. He’s putting together a really special year for a young guy. Tonight was just another example of one of the premier pitchers in the game right now."
Merrifield’s three-run blast in the seventh built on a strong week, following two home runs in the series opener Thursday, and he knew it the moment he made contact.
As he walked calmly out of the box, staring back to his dugout, he waited for the ball to crash into the bleachers and whipped his bat like a behind-the-back pass. Merrifield has struggled at times since joining the Blue Jays in a surprise deal at the Trade Deadline, slipping back into a part-time role that was new to him, but he’s stepped right back into the spotlight since Santiago Espinal was lost to a left oblique strain earlier in the week.
Merrifield joked that he’s spent much of his career (in Kansas City) hitting fly balls just like that, only to see them fall short of the wall for outs. Life in the AL East can be much friendlier when you’re putting the ball in the air, though, and now that Merrifield has settled in to his new home, he sees a roster and a clubhouse capable of doing something special.
"This is a gritty, scrappy club. We have all facets," Merrifield said. "We have starting pitching, a great bullpen, a great lineup with power, contact and speed. It's just a matter of putting it together and getting hot at the right time."
There’s no time like the present.
The Blue Jays enter their final 10 games with their fate in their own hands and one of the best pitchers in baseball ready to carry them. When Rays manager Kevin Cash was asked about his club’s loss, he gave the simplest possible answer for what happened.
"Alek Manoah," Cash said.
Manoah seems to be peaking at the right time, even with 190 2/3 innings under his belt and a clear shot at 200 in front of him. There have been times where Manoah’s velocity has dipped, or he’s needed to dance around more baserunners than usual, but he’s remained a manager’s dream. Schneider can go to sleep before each of Manoah’s starts knowing that he’ll only need to chart his bullpen out from the seventh inning, at the earliest.
The big man thinks he has plenty left in the tank, too.
"I feel amazing. So for all the haters that say I'm slowing down," Manoah said, pausing to rub his hands together and chuckle, "good luck."