Blue Jays manager John Gibbons Knows Exactly Who He Wants on the Mound Tuesday, if He Only Has Two Choices
TORONTO — Whenever John Gibbons was asked over the past couple of weeks about a potential starter in the American League wild-card game, he always had some form of the same answer ready: we have a lot of guys we would feel very comfortable putting out there.
This was quite true. It’s just that none of those guys happen to be available on Tuesday. And so, Marcus Stroman it is.
Had the Blue Jays managed a couple more wins last week and clinched a playoff berth earlier, Gibbons would have used one of three pitchers in the one-and-done game against Baltimore on Tuesday: Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ or Marco Estrada. These were the stalwarts of the rotation all year. Sanchez won the AL ERA title, Happ is a 20-game winner who was nearly as effective, and Estrada had a sub-3.50 ERA and was Toronto’s best starter in the playoffs last season.
But all of them were needed in Boston on the weekend to help pitch the Blue Jays into the playoffs, which left Gibbons with two options for what could be Toronto’s only playoff game at Rogers Centre: Stroman or Francisco Liriano. Well, three options, technically, but the odds of R.A. Dickey getting the start were about as likely as him sprouting wings.
That left Gibbons choosing between Stroman, the would-be staff ace who was the least effective Toronto starter this year, non-knuckleball division, and Liriano, the one-time ace whose performance had dropped off so much that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave him away at the trade deadline. Actually, that’s not quite right: the Pirates paid Toronto to take him, throwing in a pair of prospects just so the Blue Jays would eat his $13-million annual salary.
Both are better prospects for the wild card start than that preceding paragraph makes them sound. Stroman, though he lost his last start by giving up four runs over seven innings to the Orioles, has had a strong final month of the season. He shut out the Yankees over seven innings in his penultimate start and posted a 3.41 ERA in September, after a 3.13 ERA in August. His 3.68 ERA over the second half was more in line with what the Blue Jays expected of him, especially after his dazzling return from injury last season, and a far sight better than the 4.89 ERA he put up in the first half, which included a ghastly 7.76 number in June and brought back very uncomfortable memories of Ricky Romero.
Liriano, meanwhile, had an even more stark turnaround this season. He was 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA for the Pirates, but posted a tidy 2.92 ERA over the final two months with the Blue Jays. Whether it was the opportunity to work again with Russell Martin, who caught him during his best years in Pittsburgh, the fresh start in general, or something in the Toronto air, Liriano, 32, has been good enough for the Jays that starting him in a must-win game doesn’t seem nearly as mad as it would have six weeks ago. Over 26.2 innings in September, he gave up just six earned runs for a sparkling 2.03 ERA. And in his last start, against Baltimore on Wednesday, he threw six innings of shutout ball, striking out 10 Orioles while walking just one. That, coupled with Baltimore’s struggles against left-handed pitchers — they have an OPS of .693 against lefties and .783 against right-handers — seem like it would make Gibbons’ decision a straightforward one: Go with the veteran who is in great form and happens to throw from the left side.
The Jays went the other way. It was a surprise, and yet not, because Gibbons is very much a feel manager. Stroman was good — not great, good — in the playoffs last year and he was the Opening Day starter. He is their guy. Liriano has been a pleasant bonus; they brought him here to log some starts in part because they wanted to limit Sanchez’s innings, not because they were looking for a guy to carry their season in his hands.
And as for the numbers, both Liriano’s recent hot streak and Baltimore’s weaker performance against lefties? To that, Gibbons basically said on Monday: Pffffft.
“Whatever the stats say, you want your best competitors out there,” Gibbons said. “I think Stro’s the perfect guy. He’s going to come out throwing strikes. We’re glad he’s available.”
Liriano now moves into the bullpen, where he could come in handy as an extra lefty alongside Brett Cecil. If the game is close, or goes long, there’s an obvious bonus to having multiple options. But to hear Gibbons tell it, that wasn’t the main reason for going with the 25-year-old with the smallish frame and the biggish confidence. They think Stroman is a gamer, and they are giving him the ball.
“It’s a one-game shot,” he said. “Some guys rise to the occasion. I’ve seen Stro do that a number of times. I think he’s the perfect guy.”