TORONTO — Steven Matz had two out, the bases loaded, and a run already on the board as he reached back to throw his 50th pitch during the game’s second inning. It’s not what you want. Nor is the fact that pitch was fouled off, as was his next one, before Matz missed badly with a sinker in the dirt, walking in his second run in as many batters.
Such was life in the early going for Matz Wednesday night, as he consistently yanked sinkers glove-side, struggled to locate his curveball, and needed 56 pitches to record his first six outs, walking three in the span of four batters against a Baltimore Orioles lineup with MLB’s third-lowest OBP. But Matz has been here before. A couple of starts prior he was similarly pulling heaters too far outside the zone and made a simple in-game tweak to correct it, moving his starting position on the mound.
One problem: on Wednesday Matz started his outing there, having liked the way his fastball was playing from that lane. But the left-hander and Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker had another adjustment in mind — this time mechanical — which paid off immediately as Matz retired the side on nine pitches in his third inning, struck out a pair in the fourth, and stranded a leadoff single in the fifth. Incredibly, on a night it looked like he might not get through two, Matz was heading back to the Blue Jays dugout after five having allowed only the pair he walked in.
That gutsy effort should have provided a strong enough platform for the Blue Jays to tidily dispose of the doomed Orioles, win a series, and rack up another win they desperately need. But you’ve watched the Blue Jays. You know it could never be so simple. And so, after Matz left with a two-run lead following the fifth, Tayler Saucedo coughed one up in the sixth and Joakim Soria allowed another in the seventh, as the Orioles tied the game.
Meanwhile, runners were stranded in Toronto’s half of the fifth and sixth innings, plus two more in the seventh. But Baltimore’s bullpen just kept giving Toronto’s glacial offence opportunities. And it finally took advantage of one in the eighth, as Bo Bichette led off with a single, moved to second when Teoscar Hernandez was plunked, swiped third on an Alejandro Kirk fly out, and raced home on a Randal Grichuk sacrifice fly. Not much, but enough, as the Blue Jays squeezed out a 5-4 win.
“In terms of the offence, we’re a balanced group that can do a lot of good things. But you have to understand, there’s a book on us now and they will attack us the way they think they can get us out,” said Marcus Semien. “It doesn’t matter how you get it done. We want to be a team that can win any kind of way. Early in the year, we had a lot of big blow outs. The run differential was huge. But none of that matters now. Getting the W, sometimes it takes a big play in the end. Sometimes you jump on them early. However we can do it, we’re going to do it.”
Five runs isn’t exactly the offensive outburst Blue Jays fans have been waiting for. But considering recent results, maybe it qualifies. Semien opened the scoring with his 33rd home run in the first, before Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. each produced hits with runners in scoring position — imagine that — in the fourth, helping the Blue Jays plate a fourth run for only the third time in their last 13 games.
Meanwhile, Matz’s was the kind of find-a-way performance the Blue Jays have needed from their starters of late thanks to a slumping offence that once carried this team but has lately needed carrying itself. In the dozen games preceding Wednesday’s, Toronto was averaging only three runs a game. And five of Toronto’s six wins over the prior two weeks had come in games in which they scored three runs or fewer.
Those are incredibly thin margins to work with during the stretch drive of an already thin-margined season that sees the Blue Jays 4.5 games back in the AL wild card race with 30 to play. Assuming it will take at least 90 wins to qualify for the playoffs, Toronto can only afford 10 more losses. Preferably fewer. But it’s hard to avoid losses when you aren’t scoring.
Fortunately, Toronto’s starters have been good enough to make up for it. Actually, good enough isn’t fair. They’ve been exceptional. Blue Jays starters entered Wednesday’s game leading the AL in second-half WAR (5.7), WPA (3.57), innings pitched (239.2), ERA (3.28), FIP (3.22), K/BB (3.86), HR/9 (0.75), and average exit velocity allowed (88-m.p.h.). They are the only reason the club’s still hanging on to its remote chance of earning a spot in October’s tournament.
And perhaps this rotation’s most underappreciated contributor is Matz, who posted the lowest ERA (1.30) of any MLB pitcher to throw at least 20 innings in the month of August. He begins the season’s final month with a lower ERA and FIP than Hyun Jin Ryu. A noticeably low .246 BABIP and 3.8 HR/FB rate over his four starts prior to Wednesday may suggest he’s been somewhat fortunate of late, particularly considering he’d struck out only 12 over that span. But the contact he’s been allowing has often been weak and on the ground, which is a fine way to generate the results he has. Quietly, consistently, unexpectedly, Matz has been giving the Blue Jays excellent results over the last 30 days.
“I was kind of battling myself a little bit today,” Matz said. “But I threw a lot of fastballs today and they didn’t seem to really be on them a ton. So, that’s an encouraging takeaway today. And I think fastball-changeup has really been the name of the game for me.”
Interestingly, Matz hasn’t been doing anything all that differently than he was earlier this season when he pitched to a 4.72 ERA over his first 15 starts, and a 5.77 mark from an arbitrarily selected 11-outing span stretching from late April through early July. Same pitch usage; similar amount of them located in the zone. If anything, his stuff has declined. The sinker that averaged 95-m.p.h. from April through July sat 93.9 through five August outings; the 86-m.p.h. changeup now coming out at 84. But the hard-hit rates on each pitch have decreased in turn, as has Matz’s xwOBA on those two primary offerings, the sinker in particular.
Turns out it hasn’t been a matter of how Matz is throwing, but where. Matz’s intention is to work up with his fastball and down with his changeup, playing with hitters’ eye levels and timing to generate whiffs and weak contact. Against right-handed batters, which have accounted for three-fourths of Matz’s plate appearances this season, he’ll try to keep those changeups on the outside edge, while attacking their back feet with curveballs to prevent them from hanging out over the plate.
But through the season’s middle months, Matz’s changeup — his curveball, too — was landing more towards the middle of the zone than the edges, which made it easier for hitters to fight off while setting their sights on his fastball, which was coming at them in a similar location. But since a rough outing on July 28 when he allowed five hits on his sinker, Matz appears to have rediscovered the feel for his changeup, throwing it more consistently towards the bottom of the zone and the outside edge, which has helped make his other pitches more effective.
On the left is where Matz was locating his changeup from May through July. On the right is August:
And Matz was similarly keeping his changeup off the middle of the plate Wednesday. The problem was pulling his sinker, a problem he quickly corrected after his first two innings, getting it back up at the top of the zone where it could effectively set up his secondaries. Presumably, the issue will be a focus heading into Matz’s next start, which could come in New York during a critical series with the Yankees.
“I was talking to Pete and Kirk and it was like, ‘stay to the fat part of the plate,’” Matz said. “I kept missing glove-side or shooting them arm-side off. So, we just worked back on the plate and tried to keep me on the plate. I wasn’t trying to be so fine with all of my pitches.”
Zooming out, a world in which the Blue Jays contemplate extending Matz a qualifying offer following the season is slowly beginning to materialize. It’s obviously a little early to say anything certain. We’ll see how he looks over the five or so starts he has remaining. But if they look anything like his last six? If Matz keeps churning through innings and pushing down that ERA? It’s not unfathomable that the Blue Jays would see the value in Matz at a $19-milllion rate next season.
Consider that Jake Odorizzi received a qualifying offer coming off 159 innings of 3.51 ERA ball in 2019. As did Zack Wheeler, who had a 3.96 ERA over 195.1 innings. And while anything connected to the 2020 season comes with a million qualifiers, Kevin Gausman received one last winter after pitching to a 3.62 ERA over 59.2 innings. Same for Marcus Stroman, who sat out 2020 following a 184.1-inning, 3.22-ERA 2019.
Give Matz five starts at five innings a piece this month and he’d end up with just shy of 150 innings. And it’s not inconceivable that he could get his ERA down to near the 3.51 Odorizzi had in 2019. If those stars aligned, it would make for a fascinating case. And the Blue Jays would have to be prepared for the very real possibility that Matz accepted the offer, more than doubling his career earnings in one season and trying to re-enter the market as a 31-year-old the following off-season.
We’ll see. There’s a lot of pitches to be thrown. But that Matz has pitched himself even close to making it a discussion, coming off a 2020 in which he posted a 9.68 ERA and lost his rotation job, speaks to how far he’s come in a short amount of time. And, more broadly, how integral Toronto’s starting pitching has been of late, making the difference between a season with an incredibly thin margin and no margin at all.
Sick Jon Rahm withdraws from Fortinet Championship's Wednesday pro-am – Golf Channel
World No. 1 Jon Rahm withdrew from the Fortinet Championship’s Wednesday pro-am because of a stomach illness.
Rahm was supposed to tee off at 8:40 a.m. PST and moved his press conference to 2 p.m. But he then canceled his pre-tournament presser altogether and the Tour announced he would not appear at Silverado Resort and Spa’s North Course at all on Wednesday.
The 26-year-old Spaniard is scheduled to tee off at 7:44 a.m. local time in Round 1.
After competing this week in Napa Valley at the PGA Tour’s season opener, Rahm is expected to travel to Whistling Straights, Wisconsin, for next week’s Ryder Cup.
Oilers Rookie Notebook: Dylan Holloway’s wrist injury a tough blow – Sportsnet.ca
EDMONTON — The first blow came even before Edmonton Oilers rookie camp had opened, with prized prospect Dylan Holloway going under the knife Tuesday to repair a broken scaphoid bone in his left wrist.
What made it even more disappointing was, after busting the bone in the NCAA playoffs with the University of Wisconsin, Holloway had surgery after Wisconsin’s season ended in late March in Chicago that was designed to have him ready to play hockey this fall. But that surgery failed.
Holloway, Edmonton’s first-round pick in 2020 (14th overall) lunched with Holland during a Calgary world junior camp in August, and the Oilers GM didn’t like what he heard.
“He was telling me that he couldn’t shoot, couldn’t take draws. He was getting frustrated,” Holland said. “We were five to six months down the road … and there was very little healing going on. Probably about 30 per cent. The decision was made: nothing was really happening, and we’d need to start the process all over again.”
Holloway is only 19, but can play in the American Hockey League. He was likely destined for Bakersfield this year, which is definitely where he will be assigned when he heals up sometime around the new year.
No Room At The Inn
The Oilers roster is pretty much set with veterans, with precious few (if any) spots for a youngster to worm his way into the NHL.
But two left shot defencemen who may have the best shot — along with left winger Tyler Benson — are both in town and ready to begin their North American transition in earnest. Dmitri Samorukov and Philip Broberg are at the Rookie Camp prep’ing for main camp, where it isn’t a total reach that one might be able to stick around.
“They’re both going to be in North America,” said Holland, who had good news when doctors cleared Samorukov for full contact after a January shoulder injury suffered in Moscow. “He was playing very well in the KHL, but hasn’t played hockey since January. Two years of pro — one in Bakersfield, one in (the KHL) — and I’m also excited to see where Broberg is at, like everybody else.
“Do they force their way onto the Edmonton Oilers roster? Or do they have to go down to the American League and continue their development into NHL defencemen? That’s what we’re trying to find out, but they are both here (in North America) to stay.”
Samorukov, 22, played a season in Bakersfield then went home to CSKA Moscow last year, the club where he was raised as a player. Broberg, 20, spent two developmental seasons in Sweden’s top league with Skelleftea, while limping through the 2021 World Junior here in Edmonton.
“I had a knee injury and a shoulder injury at the World Juniors. It was difficult,” said the defenceman, who played through the pain. “It is an honour to play for your country, especially at the World Juniors.”
Broberg said he was about “80 percent” when he returned to Skelleftea, and by season’s end, his minutes were down. Samorukov injured his shoulder in a January battle drill during practice and lost the back half of his KHL season, but says the last two seasons have him ready to challenge for a spot on an NHL blue line.
“When I first came to the AHL two years ago, it was really good for me. Learning how to be a pro player,” he said. “Then, the season in the KHL, I established myself as a pro player. Now, we’re trying to knock in the door. To do our best.”
Remember, Samorukov first came over as a 17-year-old to play three junior seasons for the Guelph Storm. He had 45 points in 59 games in his 19-year-old season and then nicely quarterbacked the Russian powerplay at the World Juniors in Vancouver-Victoria. But the 197-pounmder has settled on a less offensive game as a pro.
“Of course when you come from junior you have a lot of points. You think you might be something special,” he smiled. “Then you realize you have some guys who can really get points. (You learn) what kind of game you have to play. I know who I am right now.”
Samorukov was part of the ask by Arizona when they were peddling goalie Darcy Kuemper, a package considered too rich by Holland. Now, we’ll begin to get a closer look at the 2017 third-rounder, who moves a nice puck and stands six-foot-three.
“This rookie camp offers him a good chance to get up and running,” said Bakersfield head coach Jay Woodcroft, “so he’s feeling confident heading into main camp next week.”
Is this finally the year that Tyler Benson cracks the Oilers roster? It had better be — he is waiver eligible now, at age 23 years of age with four pro seasons under his belt.
With left wingers Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Warren Foegele in town, it’s pretty clear that Benson will have to make the club as a fourth-line left-winger and try to move up from there. He’s in against Devin Shore and Brendan Perlini for that 4-LW spot, as a former candidate for exceptional status as a junior now finds himself in a utility role if he wants to get his NHL career off the ground.
“We came up with a plan to develop different areas of his game (in Bakersfield last season),” Woodcroft said. “For example, his board work. Introducing him to the penalty kill. Something he had minimal experience on, but something we felt provided a line of sight or a pathway to … make our parent club.
“Tyler was a point-per-game player last year and played on what I felt was the most dominant line in the Pacific Division of the AHL. He made plays,” his coach said. “The opportunity before him is obvious. He feels like he’s in top shape, mentally ready to go, and he’s excited about that opportunity.”
Edmonton’s recent first-round pick (22nd overall) Xavier Bourgault hit the gym hard this summer, putting on 10 lbs. He comes to camp at six feet tall and 172 pounds, so he has a ways to go.
Blue Jays optimistic Jose Berrios won’t miss next start after abdominal scare – Sportsnet.ca
After the Blue Jays’ 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the team reported that Berrios left the game due to abdominal tightness on his left side and received post-game treatment.
Berrios threw seven innings of one run ball Tuesday, striking out six and allowing only four hits.
“He’s doing fine,” Montoyo said. “He’s doing a lot better than we thought, which is great news. Actually, you might get to see him playing catch in a little bit to see how he’s doing. He did all the tests. Everything looks good.”
The right-handed pitcher who the Blue Jays acquired at the trade deadline is 11-8 on the season, with a 3.43 ERA in 173.1 innings pitched.
The Blue Jays wrap up their series with the Rays on Wednesday at 3:07 p.m. ET/ 12:07 p.m. PT on Sportsnet and SN Now.
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