MINNEAPOLIS -- Alek Manoah has a habit of looking danger in the eye and smiling, maybe shooting it a wink.
The rookie right-hander danced in and out of trouble again in Sunday afternoon's 5-2 win over the Twins, making big pitches in the biggest moments of a game that the Blue Jays simply needed to win. These aren’t the moments anyone expected Manoah to be having six months ago, but he’s quickly gone from a prospect on the horizon to a legitimate No. 3 starter with the potential to pitch in the postseason.
The win earned Toronto a series split in Minneapolis, and with the Yankees beating the Red Sox on Sunday night in Boston, the Blue Jays will enter Monday’s off-day just a game back of Boston for the second AL Wild Card spot. The Yanks come to Rogers Centre on Tuesday for a three-game series that’s likely to decide Toronto's season, so while this Twins series started with a stumble, taking two wins on the back end keeps the Blue Jays alive entering the final week of the regular season.
It started early for Manoah, when the first two runners of the game reached base, but he managed to escape without a run scoring, striking out Josh Donaldson and Max Kepler to end the inning. He scattered six hits and two walks over his 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball, his eight strikeouts coming to the rescue over and over again.
“You want to chill out, but you want to give the team a chance,” Manoah said. “Right now, everything is a little sticky. You’ve got to go out there, compete, understand what’s at stake and not get too big. There’s no need to do too much. Just stay within the routine and stay within everything that’s been working.”
And Manoah's trademark confidence isn’t wavering, either. On Saturday, Marcus Semien said, “I’ll take us over anyone.”
“We believe in each other,” Manoah added. “We think we’re the best team in baseball.”
Reaching the postseason is the first step, but if the Blue Jays find a way to pull this off, Manoah will be a central piece in Toronto's rotation in an American League Division Series or anything beyond. Much like Robbie Ray, it would be tempting to bring Manoah back around on short rest late in a series -- or even in the Wild Card Game -- if the Blue Jays needed a couple of big innings, too. No moment has proven too big for the rookie to this point, and there’s no reason to believe one will in the coming weeks.
“He looks forward to moments like that,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “If he gets in trouble, he steps off the mound and says, ‘OK, here we go.’ Then he makes big pitches. He doesn’t get nervous. You don’t teach that, he just has it.”
With Manoah setting the table just like Ray did in Saturday’s win, the long ball powered the Blue Jays' offense once again. First it was Danny Jansen launching a three-run shot in the second inning to cash in a pair of fortunate bloopers in front of him, and later it was George Springer hitting his second home run in as many games. Consider the slump officially busted for Springer.
This coming week is why the Blue Jays gave Springer $150 million over six years. The 31-year-old has a World Series ring and 292 plate appearances over 63 postseason games, something no other player on Toronto's roster can hold a candle to. Springer’s September had been ugly up until this weekend, but this young roster needs its veteran star to lead the way through the Yankees and Orioles series back in Toronto.
The Yankees series might decide it all, and the Blue Jays will be welcoming New York to town on Tuesday with increased capacity at Rogers Centre. It’s the biggest series that the stadium has hosted since 2016.
“We’re going to play the big dogs, and we’re going to play them at home in front of 30,000 fans,” Jansen said. “I think that’s a big thing -- a huge thing -- having those fans in the home crowd and being in Toronto. It’s going to be everything for us. We’re going to keep building off the momentum we have now.”
The Blue Jays are powered by veterans in Semien, Springer, Ray and others, but there are lessons to take from the kids, too. Manoah rose to the biggest moment of his season, and, now, Toronto needs to do the same.