LAKELAND — It was just one bad inning, but when you’re in Jo-Jo Reyes’ shoes, trying to win a career-making spot in a major-league pitching rotation, it could turn out to be one inning too many.
Reyes is one of four primary candidates for two open spots on the Blue Jays starting staff and he got off to a solid start with a three-up, three-down first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies, in what would eventually be a 6-3 Philly win.
“Then he lost the strike zone in the second ... a couple of four-pitch walks,” said manager John Farrell. “To lose the strike zone to two hitters like that put him in a tough spot, then he left a pitch up over the plate to a quality hitter.”
That pitch was hit off the left-field wall by Carlos Ruiz with the bases loaded, scoring two runs. That followed a rare error by second baseman John McDonald to fill the bases.
“More importantly, the walks put him in a tough spot. There was definitely a difference in the conviction of his stuff in the first and second innings.
“In that (bases-loaded) situation he’s still one pitch away from getting out of it. Once the inning started to unravel on him, he elevated a pitch.”
If you’re Reyes, these are not things you want your prospective manager to be saying about you the first time he sees you in a game situation.
Truth is, the starting pitching has been so good to this point, an inning like the one Reyes had sticks out like a sore thumb. This camp is populated by young strike-throwers, who pound the bottom of the strike zone without mercy.
Reyes was once a highly-touted prospect but he has always struggled with his command. In 194 big-league innings, he has walked 98 men, a major contributing factor to his 6.40 career ERA.
He came to Toronto as part of the deal that brought Yunel Escobar to Toronto in exchange for Alex Gonzalez last July. He is out of options, so he either makes it with the Blue Jays or he probably gets released.
“I was a little out of rhythm. Those two walks I didn’t like at all,” said Reyes. “Even the ball off the wall wasn’t hit very hard. Erase the walks and I’d be happy with it.”
The competition for this job is intense and the two winners will be pitchers who can control their emotions and fill up the strike zone with quality pitches, simple as that. If Reyes is to be one of them, he’ll have to do better.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “If I stay back and don’t rush my delivery, I can execute. I have to make my pitches one at a time. Whatever the business decision is, it’s going to happen. No matter if I’m in it or not.
“They told me I’m competing for a job in the rotation. I’m out of options. I’d love to start in Toronto, the way the chemistry is around the clubhouse. I’m having fun. I like the way they’re going about their business. That’s my goal.
“But if that doesn’t happen, I still have to go out there and pitch. I’m out of options so who knows what would happen if I was designated or put on waivers.”
Beyond the early pitching, this was not the Jays’ finest hour. They committed four errors.
“Things got a little sloppy in the middle innings,” said Farrell.
The good news is that Toronto finally scored some runs, even if it wasn’t enough. It took them 24 innings before utility candidate Mike McCoy doubled into the left-field corner, scoring Eric Thames from first base in the seventh inning after being shut out in their first two games by the Detroit Tigers.
Thames was in the middle of a ninth-inning two-run rally with an RBI triple. He’s probably headed to triple-A Las vegas this year.
“This is a guy who hasn’t had a whole lot of at-bats as a professional,” said Farrell. “Twenty-plus home runs last year. He comes into spring training trying to make an impression and open some eyes and he’s doing just that.”
Ricky Romero makes his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday in Lakeland against the Tigers, intent on going three innings. Zach Stewart, so impressive in early workouts, is expected to pitch two innings following Romero.