A week or two ago, Matt Shoemaker appeared to be little more than another insurance policy for a well-stocked Blue Jays bullpen. Now he’s once again being shoved into a prominent role for a team that is days away from making the post-season.
Shoemaker’s increased responsibilities have less to do with his own recovery from a right shoulder injury and more to do with Toronto’s lack of viable alternatives. As the back end of the rotation struggled, the Jays had no choice but to see what a guy who had thrown 25 2/3 innings all year can do on short notice.
The timing of Shoemaker’s return during Monday night’s 11-5 victory over the New York Yankees was no coincidence. The Jays won’t confirm this publicly, but the club’s decision to have him follow ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and right-hander Taijuan Walker is the clearest indicator yet that he is their preferred choice as the third starter for the post-season.
That means if the Jays split the first two games of their expected wild-card series — which they still need to officially qualify for — Shoemaker likely would get the ball for the decisive Game 3. But the only way that could happen is if he has a couple of quality outings first.
The 33-year-old began that quest Monday night and looked strong as he allowed one run on three hits and a pair of walks over three innings. With the win, Toronto’s magic number to clinch a spot in the post-season dropped to three, pending the late results of the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels games.
“I felt phenomenal,” said Shoemaker, who had not pitched since Aug. 21. “I’ve been working hard to get back quickly and safely. When you’re out there on the mound, it’s where you belong, right? It’s so exciting, I’m so thankful to be back. Just ready to go.”
There were a couple of moments during Monday’s brief appearance when the rust showed. Shoemaker walked back-to-back batters in the second and had to throw more pitches than he would have liked over the three frames, but it was still a solid return. Shoemaker, who averaged 92 m.p.h. on his fastball and touched 96, now lines up to pitch against the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday and again the following Thursday in a potential Game 3 matchup with an opponent still to be determined.
Two warm-ups for a must-win game isn’t ideal, but the Jays are concerned about quality, not quantity. Shoemaker had 60 pitches to work with against New York and ended up using 54 of them. By the weekend he should be able to throw around 70, and in the post-season Toronto likely wouldn’t require much more than that anyways.
The point isn’t to have Shoemaker come back and throw seven innings. If the Jays can get three or four quality frames — five in a best-case scenario — that might be enough to fill their needs. Either way, with a lack of time to get properly stretched out, this is the best they can hope for from Shoemaker.
Toronto finds itself in this awkward position after the continued struggles of other starters. Tanner Roark has allowed 16 earned runs over his last 17 1/3 innings. Chase Anderson surrendered five homers and seven runs in his last start alone. Ross Stripling has a 7.36 ERA since joining the team earlier this month. The only serious option beyond Shoemaker is lefty Robbie Ray, who has allowed 12 runs and 10 walks over 16 2/3 innings.
All this is happening at a time when the vaunted Jays bullpen has become a shell of its former self. Promising right-hander Julian Merryweather was placed on the injured list Monday afternoon with right elbow tendinitis, joining Jordan Romano and Nate Pearson. Rookie Thomas Hatch has allowed six runs over his last 3 1/3 innings, while Anthony Kay was optioned earlier in the month after his prolonged struggles.
Add veteran Rafael Dolis being out with a sore knee and a lot of Toronto’s depth has been eroded. For this series against the Yankees, the Jays have veteran Anthony Bass, setup man Ryan Borucki, A.J. Cole and a bunch of others who are more suited to low-leverage innings. That’s a far cry from the start of the month when Toronto had one of the best bullpens in baseball, with hopes of getting even better once their injured pitchers returned.
With the bullpen no longer looking as strong as it once did, increased responsibility will fall on the rotation and that’s a style of play the Jays haven’t used all year. They have yet to have a starter record an out in the seventh inning this season, and no one had thrown 100 pitches until Walker reached 104 during a recent outing against the Philadelphia Phillies.
At one point earlier in the year the Jays may have been planning to go with a bullpen day in the post-season. If that happens now it won’t be by design, but instead because of an emergency. With their top relievers missing, the Jays need Shoemaker just as much as they need Ryu and Walker.
They can’t survive with two reliable starters. They might not be able to make a deep run with just three either, but that number would at least give the Jays a chance. And as the clear underdogs who just completed a six-game losing streak, that’s the best they can hope for considering their current situation.