Mound visit confusion overshadows Toronto's main issue

May 21st, 2023

TORONTO -- Mistakes have led to early exits for already this season, but those have typically been his own.

Saturday at Rogers Centre was a little different. With two on and two out in the sixth and Manoah at just 85 pitches, manager John Schneider jogged out for a chat. The problem, however, was that pitching coach Pete Walker had already visited Manoah that inning, and a second visit in the same inning necessitates a pitching change by rule.

Home-plate umpire and crew chief Dan Iassogna relayed that information to Schneider, who turned and shared it with his starter. Manoah’s shoulders sank and he walked off the mound, gas still in the tank.

“I [screwed] up,” Schneider said immediately after the 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Orioles, owning the mistake and making it clear that it won’t happen again. “I forgot Pete went out there, because we were talking about a lot of different stuff.”

Manoah was through 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball at that point, shaking off a rocky first inning to look more like himself the rest of the way. It was a welcome sign for the Blue Jays after Manoah walked seven batters his last time out, and his return to his 2022 form is as important as any narrative around this organization right now.

The big man didn’t show any frustration after the loss, saying “it happens," but there was still some confusion in the moment.

“There was just some silence. I had known Pete had come out there,” Manoah said. “When he started asking me if I wanted to stay in the game, I was like, ‘Well, maybe Pete didn’t come out here?’ I wasn’t sure. I told him I wanted to stay in and pleaded my case, but as he walked away, the umpire was like, ‘Hey, that was your second visit.’”

Given the stage and the pitcher involved, much of the attention following the loss will rest on this move, but it belongs elsewhere.

Let’s start with the Blue Jays’ ability to hit with runners on base, which has abandoned them in a recent 1-5 skid against the Yankees and Orioles. This is one of baseball’s great examples of “something that comes and goes," but when it’s gone, it’s difficult to look away from.

The Blue Jays were just 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position Saturday, and even if that number were 3-for-15, you’d be reading a different story.

Their .237 team average with runners in scoring position currently ranks them 24th in MLB and their .704 OPS ranks them 21st. A lineup this talented won’t stay at those numbers forever, but the theme all week has been that the AL East demands urgency. There’s no time to wait around in a division fully capable of boasting five winning records at the end of all this.

It’s important not to lose sight of what went right for Manoah on an individual level, though, given his importance to this team’s success. He was also working with for the first time in 2023, breaking up the Manoah-Alejandro Kirk tandem that was together for 30 of his 31 starts a year ago.

“It’s just a different look for Alek,” Schneider said prior to the game, “and [Jansen] is swinging the bat well.”

Bingo. Jansen launched his fifth home run, which gave the Blue Jays a 3-2 lead in the sixth inning.

Jansen tends to be the cure for what ails the Blue Jays. It’s difficult to overstate just how highly Jansen is valued by the organization internally. While his defense and ability to manage a pitching staff can be more subtle, weeks like this past week at the plate are impossible to miss. 

Jansen already has two walk-off hits in the past week, and Saturday’s home run just continues the hot streak that’s seen him lean back into his identity as a pull-power hitter. This is the Jansen we saw in 2022, who hit 15 home runs with an .855 OPS over just 72 games, and who has the power to hit 30-plus when he’s in there every day.

There won’t be a traditional “starter” while both Jansen and Kirk are in town, but on a team that’s surprisingly starved for home runs, Jansen’s far superior power potential should have him as the ‘1A’ for now.

Beyond Manoah and Jansen, though, Saturday’s effort fell short in another painful way. 

The Blue Jays are close -- painfully close, at times -- and their talent is undeniable on paper. They’re due to show that on the field again, though, and especially in the AL East.