Shoemaker doesn't miss a beat in return

July 25th, 2020

Matt Shoemaker went 462 days between starts and didn’t skip a beat.

The veteran right-hander gave the Blue Jays six innings of efficient one-run ball, before it slipped away late in their 4-1 loss to the Rays on Saturday at Tropicana Field. This was Shoemaker picking up right where he left off in 2019, when he opened the season with a 1.57 ERA through five starts, before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the season.

On his first pitch of the game, Shoemaker forced Ji-Man Choi to beat a fastball into the ground, which was a sign of things to come. While Choi’s RBI double in the sixth brought home the only run against Shoemaker, the veteran right-hander allowed just one ball in play with an exit velocity north of 100 mph, a single to Yandy Díaz, who he eventually stranded.

Shoemaker had his fastball working with a slight uptick in velocity compared to 2019, but it was his mix of pitches across the board that made him so effective. While his fastballs worked the edges, Shoemaker got five whiffs with his splitter, which falls off the table low in the zone, and three more with his slider, which had tremendous run away from right-handed hitters.

“We’re going to go out there and use four pitches every time we go out and pitch, attacking the zone with all four pitches. That was the mindset,” Shoemaker said. “Overall, good execution with that. A few got away from me here and there, but overall, happy with the execution.”

With Shoemaker, it will always be about control and mixing pitches. Keeping hitters off balance is equal parts planning and reacting, which is where the relationship between pitcher and catcher shows itself best.

This was evident on Opening Day with Hyun Jin Ryu, who always knows the perfect time to pull back with a changeup. For Shoemaker, that’s his splitter, and as he and catcher Reese McGuire read how aggressive the opposing Rays hitters were, that helped them inform their decisions on when to try to catch someone out on their front foot.

“You can read guys' swings and what they’re trying to do, as well as being very prepared with your catcher to have that good game plan going in,” Shoemaker said.

Even when Shoemaker was on the injured list in 2019, he had value. He still spent time around the club, often working with younger pitchers, and is at the top of the list when you ask Blue Jays players or coaches who the clubhouse looks to for leadership. This rotation already has an ace in Ryu and a prospect with a sky-high ceiling coming in Nate Pearson, but a strong, healthy season from Shoemaker could tie this whole thing together.

“He’s a great leader in this clubhouse, and you know how good he was last year. That’s going to be a key for us,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “If he pitches anywhere close to what he did last year, we’re going to be a good team.”

The bullpen took over a 1-1 tie from Shoemaker, but things finally fell apart in the eighth. After using his primary high-leverage arms on Opening Day Friday, Montoyo went to Sam Gaviglio, who allowed a two-run triple and later balked home a run.