A flop of a start by Yusei Kikuchi in Sunday’s 8-7 loss to the Astros in Houston was part of the reason why the Blue Jays fell short of their first series sweep of the season. But their starting pitching started to find its stride otherwise on their just-completed six-game road trip.
Kikuchi got away from the fastball-centric approach that had served him well against the Boston Red Sox last Tuesday, using his four-seamer only 41 per cent of the time among 76 pitches — down from 56 per cent at Fenway Park. The Astros seemed to be hunting the left-hander’s off-speed offerings, including slider he used 37 per cent of the time — up from 21 per cent in Boston.
The home team, which was also familiar with Kikuchi from his previous three seasons in the American League West with the Seattle Mariners, had a plan at the plate and made it work. Kikuchi also left some key pitches over the heart of the plate and finished with more walks (five) than strikeouts (four) over 3 2/3 innings at Minute Maid Park.
He allowed four runs in all on just three hits, including a two-run home run by Michael Brantley in the fourth inning. An error by shortstop Bo Bichette in the second inning made two of the runs unearned.
Kikuchi’s rocky outing put the Jays in a hole on the way to an eventual 10-inning defeat, but their starting staff as a whole managed to stay out of trouble for the most part on the road. After a collective 5.70 ERA through the first 10 games of the season, the rotation had combined for a 2.48 ERA through Boston and Houston heading into Sunday.
The ride wasn’t entirely smooth.
- In Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Astros, Jays starter Alek Manoah served up a two-run homer to Alex Bregman in the first inning before shutting out Houston for the next five. He allowed seven hits in all, but walked none.
- Friday’s spot starter Ross Stripling — called upon after struggling lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu was added the 10-day injured list with forearm soreness — was dinged for three runs in the third inning and left after four with the Jays trailing the Astros 3-0. The bullpen restored order on the way to a 4-3 victory.
- Wednesday in Boston, the Red Sox opened the scoring with three hits in the first inning off Jays starter José Berríos, who settled in from there en route to a 6-1 win.
Kevin Gausman pitched the gem of the trip in the series finale at Fenway Park. The right-hander flirted with the first nine-inning complete game by a Blue Jay since Marcus Stroman in 2017 before putting the leadoff runner on in the ninth and handing off to Jordan Romano, who closed out a 3-2 victory over the Red Sox — who arrive at the Rogers Centre for a four-game series starting Monday night.
Gausman told Sportsnet’s Arash Madani the Fenway outing answered a few questions he’d had in his first season as a Jay, and after a shortened spring training because of the Major League Baseball lockout.
“Still trying to get to that 100-pitch mark. Wish I could have got there today,” said the righty, who threw 88 pitches against the Red Sox with eight strikeouts and no walks. “Overall, just felt good. Was coming into the game wanting to attack them and be the aggressor and that’s definitely what we did.”
Five of the six games in Boston and Houston were decided by a single run.
For the upcoming series, the Red Sox arrive with a rotation — minus injured ace Chris Sale — that has posted an ERA (4.40) similar to Toronto’s (4.52). Boston’s numbers, however, have been relatively steady all season, while the ERA among the Jays’ starters has been trending in the right direction.
And the visitors will be down at least one starting pitcher this week: Tanner Houck, who is unvaccinated and therefore unable to travel into Canada without a two-week quarantine.
The Jays will face Nathan Eovaldi, Canadian Nick Pivetta and Michael Wacha in the first three games. Boston has yet to announce Thursday afternoon’s starter, who will face Manoah.
It’s the start of a 10-game homestand, with the Astros and New York Yankees to follow.
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