Alek Manoah’s struggles raise questions about what Blue Jays will do at trade deadline

TORONTO — Too many pitches, too many walks and too few strikeouts. It was again that sort of night for Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah, who had a too-short outing in Tuesday’s 9-1 loss to the San Diego Padres at the Rogers Centre in only his second start back in the big leagues since his midseason demotion to the minors.

Nearly two weeks ago, Manoah made his return to the majors following a month spent working through his mechanics in the midst of career-worst struggles. That work was conducted largely out of the team’s player development complex in Dunedin, Fla. In his return before the All-Star break, Manoah impressed, throwing six one-run innings against the Detroit Tigers, while looking like his energetic self on the mound. The Blue Jays were hopeful he could build upon that outing as he opened his second half and put an unfortunate first half fully behind him.

But instead, Manoah lasted just three innings, giving up four runs on three hits with five walks against the Padres in his first start at home since he was optioned to the Florida Complex League on June 6.

After the game, Blue Jays manager John Schneider said he thought the pitching line “looked worse than I think it really was,” and he didn’t view this as a step backwards for the 25-year-old right-hander. But, certainly, time is running out for the Blue Jays to be patient if Manoah doesn’t make more significant strides soon. With only a couple of Manoah starts remaining before the trade deadline on Aug. 1, the Blue Jays will need to consider if Manoah can indeed be counted on to give them a chance to win when he takes the mound, especially with the team trying to hold on to a playoff spot over the final two months.

“I thought he was probably a little bit better in Detroit and he’s going to continue to try to make strides,” Schneider said. “Again, it could have been a little bit different tonight. And tonight, it wasn’t. It didn’t go our way.”

The re-emergence of familiar first-half issues cropped up in Manoah’s outing Tuesday, namely an inability to put guys away efficiently. He needed 92 pitches — 49 strikes — before he was pulled after two batters reached in the fourth inning. Schneider said he thought Manoah was probably “trying to be a little bit too fine” on those put-away pitches rather than simply attacking the zone. Asked if Manoah needs to get the slider back to more of the wipeout pitch it used to be, Schneider said it “comes down to the fastball and slider.”

“When one is working off the other one is when he’s really good and I think if his fastball command was probably a tick tighter tonight, then I think he probably would have seen better results with the slider,” the manager said.

The outing began with a taxing 41-pitch first inning, where his trouble putting guys away was apparent. He threw 23 pitches with two strikes and didn’t get a single swing and miss on any. But Manoah encountered misfortune in the outing, too. Manoah was ahead of Padres left fielder Juan Soto 1-2 when he threw a changeup that caught the bottom of the zone, but he didn’t get the strike call. Ultimately, on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Soto hit a two-run home run. It left the Blue Jays down 2-0 and cost Manoah extra pitches.

“I’m not going to sit here and say one call in the first inning kind of changed everything but yeah, it’s just one of those, if it would have gone our way, never know,” Manoah said. “But it is what it is and obviously he hit the home run a couple of pitches after. (I) just got to continue to make pitches.”

Added Schneider: “There were some close calls and sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t. I don’t think that’s the story of the game tonight.”

Manoah had a much better 20-pitch second inning, where the only blemish was a controversial walk to Trent Grisham, after which Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, who had been unhappy with home plate umpire Malachi Moore’s strike zone, got thrown out during a mound visit.

“I don’t think anything Pete said would have got you kicked out of a 10-year-old travel ballpark, but it is what it is,” Manoah said. “I don’t know what he said before. I don’t know what’s the history there. I really don’t know. I just know that he was talking to me and had just said, ‘There were a couple of calls that didn’t go our way but, don’t worry about it, just keep pitching. I’ll handle everything else.’ And next thing you know, he was tossed.”

Again in an unlucky stroke, in the third, Padres right fielder Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a ball down the third-base line that hit the third-base bag and bounced over the glove of Matt Chapman and into left field. It went as a double. Then, Soto hit a line drive to right field which George Springer lost in the lights. That also went down as a double and the Blue Jays were down 4-1 by the end of the third. Manoah faced two batters in the fourth before he was taken out of the game.

“It’s a really good veteran lineup and they made him work,” Schneider said, adding. “I think it was just a tough night for him and it gets a little bit magnified because he just came back.”

Assuming Manoah stays on turn in the rotation, he should have at least two more starts before the trade deadline. Those will be crucial opportunities for the front office to assess how they believe Manoah can reasonably perform over the final two months of the season. If the Blue Jays believe this one looked worse than it was, then perhaps acquiring a starter is lower on the priority list. But if there is concern his struggles will continue to linger, it conceivably raises the urgency of seeking some starting pitching depth at the deadline in case Manoah is too much of a question mark.

Impacting the matter of the rotation and what they’ll do at the deadline is also the impending return of Hyun Jin Ryu, who is scheduled to make his second rehab start with Triple-A Buffalo — and fourth rehab outing overall — on Friday. According to Schneider, the hope is the 36-year-old left-hander will throw 75-80 pitches over six innings. Assuming it goes well, Schneider suggested there are not many more boxes for Ryu, who was at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday, to check before he’ll be ready to return.

As long as he gets through his remaining rehab outing(s) smoothly, Ryu’s biggest test will come in his return to the majors. But similar to Manoah, there has to be a question as to what the Blue Jays can reasonably expect to get from him following Tommy John surgery.

But back to Manoah. Schneider said he was pleased with his demeanour on the mound and in between innings, especially after not getting some strike calls. This wasn’t the type of start the Blue Jays or Manoah wanted to open his second half with, and it does at least raise the question of if they need to seriously pursue a starter at the deadline, but Manoah was still pleased with his ability to compete and hoped to build off of it.

“I would have liked to be in the zone a little bit more, but just got to continue to compete and that’s something that I felt like I kept doing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what was going on, just continue to compete.”

(Photo of Manoah: Chris Young / The Canadian Press via Associated Press)

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