Blue Jays: Alek Manoah facing his first real test of adversity

Aug 17, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Alek Manoah (6) pitches against the Washington Nationals in the second inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 17, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Alek Manoah (6) pitches against the Washington Nationals in the second inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

Alek Manoah struggled on Tuesday in a Blue Jays loss to the Nationals. Now the young right-hander has to find a way to bounce back

Alek Manoah’s troubles on Tuesday night began with a familiar face.

Riley Adams, acquired by the Washington Nationals from the Blue Jays in the Brad Hand deal, led off the bottom of the third inning with a single. By the time the inning was over, Manoah’s night was done, the Nationals had a six-run lead, and the Blue Jays were on their way to an embarrassing loss to a last-place team that had lost seven straight games and 12 of their last 13.

Manoah was making his 12th career start on Tuesday. It turned out to be his worst. He gave up seven runs, six of them earned (the unearned run came when he threw the ball away on a pickoff attempt), in only three innings. He gave up more runs in this outing than he had in his previous six starts combined.

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There was little indication that such a performance was coming from the Blue Jays star rookie at the start of the game, especially not when Manoah struck out Juan Soto looking on a 93 mph sinker on the corner to end the first inning. He gave up a home run to 33-year-old Cuban rookie Yadiel Hernandez in the second inning, but the Blue Jays managed to tie in the top of the third. With Manoah on the mound and a nationwide audience watching on Youtube, it seemed like the game was their’s for the taking.

Then came the bottom of the third. After Adams reached on the leadoff single, Manoah hit Victor Robles to put two runners on with one out. On the first pitch to Alcides Escobar, Manoah left a sinker up in the middle of the zone that Escobar hit into the gap in left-centre field, bringing both Adams and Robles home. It was the first extra-base hit Manoah had allowed on his sinker all season.

Manoah may have gotten out of the inning without further damage if not for a bad break: he appeared to strike out Soto on a 1-2 fastball, but home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called it a ball. Two pitches later, Soto reached on a walk and went to second on a single by Josh Bell that loaded the bases. Up came Hernandez again, who this time snuck a ground ball past the glove of Bo Bichette playing the shift at short to drive in Escobar and Soto. The Nationals scored two more runs, on an error and sacrifice fly, and led 7-1 before the inning finally came to an end.

Blue Jays have to hope Manoah returns to his old form

It’s a far cry from what the Blue Jays have come to expect from Manoah in his young career. He came into Tuesday leading the American League with a 2.59 ERA since his MLB debut on May 27. He also led the league in hits allowed per nine innings and opponents batting average. He hadn’t surrendered more than two earned runs in any of his previous six starts and had allowed four total runs since the All-Star break.

The Blue Jays lost 12-6, failing to make up any ground in the race for the second AL Wild Card spot. They are four games behind the Yankees, Athletics, and Red Sox and have to jump over at least two of them to make the postseason. Beating bottom-feeding teams like the Nationals is a must at this time of year. The Blue Jays failed to do it on Tuesday.

It wasn’t the only bit of bad news they got during the day. George Springer went on the IL with a knee sprain, with manager Charlie Montoyo saying he doesn’t know when his leadoff man will be able to return. Springer’s absence should take some attention from Manoah’s outing, but the Blue Jays young right-hander can’t escape from the fact he now finds himself in a position he hasn’t been in too often: trying to bounce back from a bad outing.

Was this just a small blip to be forgotten by the time Manoah takes the mound again next week against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox? Or is it a sign of something more? Manoah has thrown 80 innings this season across both the majors and minors after not pitching at all in 2020. He’s also no longer the unknown rookie taking the rest of the league by storm. Opposing hitters now have tape on him.

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Manoah is facing the first real test of his career. A team that he should handle easily, in a game the Blue Jays needed to win, knocked him around. Whether he recovers and returns to the pitcher he was for the past two-and-a-half months, or if he’s hit a proverbial wall in his rookie season, will be a major factor determining whether the Blue Jays make a run at closing that playoff spot deficit.