Blue Jays: Nate Pearson looks sharp and healthy in first start with Buffalo

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 18: Nate Pearson #24 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the first inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 18, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 18: Nate Pearson #24 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches in the first inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 18, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

At 7 pm Tuesday, more than two hours before the Toronto Blue Jays played the second game of their series in Oakland, the eyes of the organization were on a field 4,000 kilometers away in Trenton, New Jersey.

Nate Pearson, the Blue Jays No. 1 pitching prospect, threw 78 pitches over 3.2 innings as the Opening Day starter for Triple-A Buffalo in their 6-1 win over Worcester at Arm & Hammer Park. Pearson allowed one run on four hits while striking out eight.

Pearson was solid in his otherwise abbreviated first start of the season. Against a lineup that included top-100 prospects Jeter Downs and Jarren Duran, he struck out the first two batters he faced, struck out the side in the top of the second inning, and threw 10 strikes in 11 pitches in the third inning. Pearson threw 12 strikes in a row at one point, his fastball reportedly hitting 100 mph.

Nate Pearson is quickly rounding into form as he tries to work his way back into the Blue Jays rotation

It was only in the fourth inning that Pearson found himself in trouble. After giving up a one-out double to Michael Chavis, he allowed an infield single to Yairo Munoz after two pitches that appeared to be in the strike zone were called balls. He walked Marcus Wilson to load the bases before surrendering another infield single, this time to Jonathan Arauz, that scored Worcester’s first run. Pearson was then lifted for relief pitcher Tayler Saucedo, throwing 53 strikes in his outing.

He didn’t last as deep into the game as he would’ve liked, but the Blue Jays front office must be satisfied with what they saw from Pearson. He was sharp, he showed good command, and his trademark fastball showed it hadn’t lost any of its fire power.

Pearson was getting ready for his first full season on the big-league roster while throwing in the bullpen in Dunedin in March. It was then that he felt a sharp pain, a groin strain in an area that he had already suffered a strain earlier in spring training. His hopes of opening the season with the Blue Jays dashed, Pearson has been rehabbing and pitched in games at the Blue Jays alternate site throughout April.

The extended time off gave Pearson a chance to work on something that troubled him during his brief stint in the Majors in 2020. His walks per nine innings at Triple-A in 2019 was 1.50. That jumped to 6.50 in 2020. He said before his start on Tuesday he’s been working on refining his fastball command and adjusting his mechanics in an effort to avoid the health problems that have plagued him.

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“I like to always say I’m a good strike-thrower for how hard I throw,” Pearson said. “Definitely, after the groin injury, I tweaked my mechanics a little bit, throwing with a little less effort and feeling more whippy and more effortlessly. Not trying to chase velo or anything. Just trying to pitch. It’s definitely a little bit new so I’m adjusting to those mechanics. But I’m feeling really great with them and feeling healthy.”

Pearson is ranked as the 10th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline and the No. 1 pitcher. Over the four starts he made with the Blue Jays in 2020, his fastball averaged 96.1 mph, 14th among 180 starters who threw at least 15 innings. Opponents hit just .206 against him, which would’ve ranked 11th among qualified starters.

The stuff has always been there for Pearson. The hard part is being healthy enough to show it off. The Blue Jays can use a starter with his dominant repertoire in their rotation. Their starters rank last in the Majors with 118 innings pitched, less than five per start. Blue Jays relievers, as a result, have thrown the fourth-most innings in the league. Only twice over the last 14 games has the Blue Jays starter recorded an out in the sixth inning, both times by Robbie Ray.

Since April 18, Blue Jays starters have the seventh-worst ERA (4.89) and third-worst opposing batting average (.277). With Hyun Jin Ryu on the IL, the Blue Jays have resorted to starting Travis Bergen, Trent Thornton, and Tommy Milone in bullpen games.

The first step to getting Pearson back was taken on Tuesday. While they won’t say how many starts Pearson is expected to make for Buffalo/Trenton, Pearson is preparing himself for the eventual call-up that should be sooner rather than later. “I think they want me to be able to go six or seven strong innings for them when I get called back up,” he said. “So, obviously, we’re going to see how the rehab and the next starts go here in Triple-A.”

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He may have been wearing the unfamiliar blue uniform of the Trenton Thunder, the adopted home of the Bisons while Sahlen Field is prepared for the Blue Jays’ eventual move there, but he shouldn’t get used to it. Pearson will be wearing another blue uniform before long, that of the Blue Jays. He’s not ready yet, but he showed on Tuesday he’s pretty close.