Pearson bounces back, battles at Fenway

July 22nd, 2020

One batter in, it looked like Tuesday’s exhibition in Boston would be Nate Pearson’s emphatic final statement to the Blue Jays before Opening Day.

He overpowered Andrew Benintendi with a high fastball on his first pitch, then flashed 98.1 mph on a ball inside to follow. By the time Pearson got into a 2-2 count, he eased off the gas with a changeup that ate up Benintendi, who swung right over the top of it. It was a perfect slice of what Pearson looks like when he’s at his best.

Then, in the rarest of sights, the Blue Jays’ No. 1 prospect started to struggle. Pearson either missed the zone or found too much of it, which happened on both an RBI single to Xander Bogaerts and a three-run home run to Mitch Moreland.

Pearson found his groove, though, as he didn’t allow another run after the first, and finished his 3 2/3 innings of work with three consecutive strikeouts in Toronto’s 8-6 win. The early stumble is a grain of sand in the big picture, but Pearson’s ability to bounce back and battle through without his best stuff -- or hardest fastball -- is an encouraging takeaway if you’re looking for one. Along with that changeup, Pearson had the backdoor slider working well late.

“Right out of the gates, the fastball command was just not there,” Pearson said. “I relied a lot on my changeup and my slider the whole game, then found my fastball towards the end. In the last inning, I found my electric heater.”

Known for lighting up radar guns and 100-plus mph, Pearson sat more in the 96-mph range on Tuesday with a peak of 98.1 mph. He finished his day with 3 2/3 innings pitched, allowing four runs on five hits while walking two and striking out five.

“As soon as I get my fastball back, my velo starts coming up too,” Pearson said. “When you start hanging the ball, your velo starts dipping a little bit. I don’t even know what my velo was, but I can imagine that it was a little bit down tonight, just because I was trying to aim the ball rather than just throw and let my elite heater do its thing.”

After the first, Pearson knew it was time to “problem solve” which starts with identifying where he’s missing. He felt he was missing high, generally, or low and away to right-handed hitters. Pearson also recognized that he was collapsing his back leg, which hurt his delivery. He’d rather not need to problem solve, but so much of the Blue Jays’ belief in Pearson rests not just in his arm, but his pitching acumen.

Prior to Tuesday’s game, manager Charlie Montoyo said it wouldn’t be fair to Pearson to give this start much weight in the club’s final decision in the competition for the No. 5 starter’s job. After spending Summer Camp operating under a modified quarantine inside Rogers Centre in Toronto, Montoyo views these games more as an opportunity for his club to re-acclimate to games against real opponents ahead of Opening Day.

Pearson is still considered to be “competing” for a rotation job, but service time is an issue that still can’t be ignored. If he’s held off the Opening Day roster, then his debut would surely come in the Blue Jays’ second trip through their rotation.

The real surprise in this game is that Pearson didn’t own the hardest pitch thrown by a Blue Jays pitcher. Canadian reliever Jordan Romano wasted no time, hitting 98.2 mph on his very first pitch. Romano faced just one hitter in Jackie Bradley Jr., but struck him out with a fantastic slider to end the inning. After being one of the standouts of Summer Camp and adding some velocity, the right-hander is setting himself up for a huge opportunity in 2020.

Toronto’s lineup picked up its pitching staff by making its 10 hits count, as Rowdy Tellez continued his hot summer with a deep home run and Derek Fisher launched two of his own, including the go-ahead shot in the ninth.