Michael King has faced the Blue Jays a handful of times in his young Major League career, but his familiarity with their current roster goes back farther than that. As a Minor Leaguer in the Yankees’ system, King had many 60-foot-6-inch duels with the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and others.
In fact, his best professional outing came against that group in June 2018, when King tossed a three-hitter and struck out 11 batters for Double-A Trenton against New Hampshire.
King reflected on that outing Sunday, after he retired 16 Blue Jays in a row as part of six scoreless innings in the Yankees’ 3-1 loss. The 25-year-old right-hander became the first Yankee reliever to throw six innings and allow one hit or fewer since Bob Shirley in 1986.
“I’ve seen these hitters a lot, where it’s not just me facing them, but I also watch a lot of video on that,” King said. “Yeah, I’ve had a couple [outings] that have been pretty good. But none at the big league level, obviously.”
King’s dominant outing did not start that way. In relief of Domingo Germán, King issued a four-pitch walk to Randal Grichuk to start the fourth inning, then allowed a single to Joe Panik. After that, King locked in.
“I ended up just attacking the zone,” he said. “I was able to get ahead of almost everybody, throwing both the sinker and cutter for strikes, [and] had some pretty good changeups.”
All told, King retired the final 16 batters he faced, and logged three strikeouts on the day. He’s the first Yankees reliever to retire 16 or more consecutive batters since Neil Allen (19) on May 31, 1988, per the Elias Sports Bureau.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone noted that King has “come a long way” in his career, and King acknowledged as much, too. Entering the 2019 season, King (then 23) had planned to crack the big league roster for the first time. But he suffered a stress reaction in his throwing elbow that spring, followed by a setback in May, and suddenly his timeline changed.
“I kind of underestimated how tough it is to come back from injury,” King said. “So in 2019, when I got hurt, I totally got out of my mechanics, totally got out of my mindset that I had in previous years.”
King debuted as a September callup in a mop-up role during the final weekend of the 2019 season. In ‘20, he posted a 7.76 ERA in 26 2/3 innings with the Yankees. His first impression of ‘21 couldn’t have gone better.
Boone lauded King’s ability to work efficiently -- needing just 68 pitches in those six innings -- to give the bullpen a reprieve after the team’s starters combined for just 12 1/3 frames in the three-game series.
“He was really in command,” Boone said. “He gave us a chance.”
King entered Sunday’s game with a three-run deficit after the Blue Jays jumped on Germán in the second inning. Germán, making his first regular-season appearance following an 81-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, allowed three runs (two homers) in the frame. He had pumped strikes in the early going, throwing 18 in his first 24 pitches. But then he began to nibble around the zone, and by the time the third inning was over, he had thrown 68 pitches and was pulled in favor of King.
What worked for King was, well, pretty much everything. He was particularly proud of his cutter, which is a harder, tighter variant of the slider he threw last season. It was his out pitch on all three strikeouts, and it’s part of what King has worked on to become an important piece of the Yankees’ pitching staff.
“[Pitching coach Matt] Blake, [bullpen coach Mike] Harkey and I, we’ve made some pretty good tweaks to mechanics, to pitch sequencing, to even just different pitches that have allowed me to have success at this level,” King said. “All those little tweaks added to the confidence that I’ve gotten.”