Milone gives battered Blue Jays a chance

April 18th, 2021

The Blue Jays’ pitching staff turned to Plan A and B in Saturday’s doubleheader against the Royals, and they’ll need more of these performances as injuries force them to dig deeper into the alphabet.

If you thought would start a game in mid-April for the Blue Jays, you were the only one. The veteran left-hander has hung around the big leagues, now with his ninth organization, but hasn’t been an effective, full-time Major League starter since 2015 with the Twins. There he was starting in a 3-2 walk-off loss in Game 2 of Saturday’s doubleheader, though, slinging changeups and breaking balls past some eager Royals hitters while his fastball topped out at 85.6 mph.

Between injuries, performance and the challenge of building back up to 162 games, the Blue Jays won’t always have the expected names on the mound. The nightcap loss was a good example of that throughout. When that’s the case, they need exactly what Milone gave them, which is a chance.

The two runs charged to Milone over his 2 1/3 innings taint the stat line, but neither would have scored if Rowdy Tellez hadn’t skipped a throw home in the third inning. Milone struck out four -- including a milestone strikeout with No. 700 for his career -- and his changeup, which he threw even more than his fastball, forced six whiffs on 18 pitches. It might not be sustainable over a full season, but the crafty vet knew how to toy with some young, aggressive hitters. That changeup was at the heart of his game plan.

“You read hitters here and there, their tendencies, and you can kind of tell what they’re looking for,” Milone explained. “Sometimes they are looking for the changeup and the best thing for me to do is throw it, but not for a strike. I give them what they want and they swing at it, but it’s not where they want it to be.”

Toronto's bullpen kept the game tied into the bottom of the seventh, but Joel Payamps surrendered a walk-off home run to Salvador Perez. That’s typically a spot where Toronto could have turned to Jordan Romano or Julian Merryweather -- both of whom are on the IL. David Phelps was unavailable, too, after warming up but not entering the game in Game 1.

The Blue Jays have given starts to Ross Stripling, T.J. Zeuch and Anthony Kay already this season as well, digging into their depth earlier than they would have liked. Robbie Ray opened the season on the IL, but soon after he came back, Stripling went down with an injury. He’s now on the IL with No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson and right-hander Thomas Hatch, both of whom could have broken camp in the starting five. It’s the same story in the bullpen, so across the board, the Blue Jays are asking pitchers to step into bigger roles than expected.

“With the injuries, this is what we’ve got and this is what we’ve got to go with,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “We’ve got Ray tomorrow and we should have enough for tomorrow, but that’s one of the reasons we used the bullpen in the second game today. Otherwise, you’ve got to go to Boston [on Tuesday] with two bullpen days [in Kansas City] and that’s just too much.”

That happens at the top, too. Just as Milone went from depth arm to starter, Steven Matz has gone from a back-of-rotation arm to one of the most important players on the roster this month. Matz threw six innings of one-run ball in the 5-1 win to start the doubleheader, moving to 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA. To a rotation in need of upside behind ace Hyun Jin Ryu, Matz’s timing has been absolutely perfect.

From here, the Blue Jays have to hope they’re not stretched any thinner. Trent Thornton and Payamps represent long relief options, but beyond them, the 40-man roster has been maxed out. Top prospects Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 4 per MLB Pipeline) and Alek Manoah (No. 7) looked fantastic in Spring Training, but they still have some development ahead of them.

Beyond starters like Pearson and Hatch, the roster is also missing star talent on the positional side in George Springer and Teoscar Hernández. The good news, if there is any, is that there’s plenty of baseball to come. If the Blue Jays can stay competitive while they deal with these injuries, which is exactly what Milone allowed them to do Saturday, then this roster has the talent to take care of business through the summer months.