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PHILADELPHIA – The way small plays can add up over the course of a baseball game is why John Schneider made attention to detail such a focal point for the Toronto Blue Jays. Sometimes they represent a series of incremental gains, equalling a greater whole. Sometimes, they stick out blatantly once all is said and done. Players can’t be sure which ones will play big. Either way, they matter.
Take Alek Manoah’s pitch-timer violation that led to an automatic fourth ball for Brandon Marsh to open the fifth. Maybe the right-hander would have missed the zone anyway. Or maybe the Philadelphia Phillies right-hander would have swung through a full-count offering for an out. But Manoah, by beginning his windup a hair late, didn’t give himself a chance.
Or later in that inning, when Marsh was off on the pitch and Trea Turner lined a single to right-centre field, Santiago Espinal took the relay from Kevin Kiermaier and looked to third instead of throwing home immediately, unaware Marsh had turned. His too-late throw home bounced at the plate, allowing Turner to take second, and while a good throw to Alejandro Kirk doesn’t guarantee a run-preventing out, it was certainly possible.
Before the eighth inning unravelled on the Blue Jays and pushed a one-run game into an 8-4 Phillies win Tuesday night, plays like that stuck out as the grind for Manoah and his weirdly pedestrian slider continued and the offence went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
While Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s return reinforced the batting order, George Springer’s ongoing struggle with a viral infection kept him the starting lineup, limiting him to a pinch-hit at-bat against Gregory Soto during a seventh-inning of unfulfilled opportunity.
A fly ball in that spot with the bases loaded and one out would have tied the game, but sapped by illness and coming in cold against the lefty’s high-90s filth, it was a near impossible task. Danny Jansen, hitting for Brandon Belt, followed with a grounder to third that ended the frame.
Still, it was the lack of crispness earlier that left the Blue Jays, whose three-game win streak came to an end, in a hole — although some Phillies mishaps also helped them climb back into the game.
Manoah, who didn’t get a single swinging strike on 13 slider swings and had just three whiffs in 94 pitches overall, managed the game through the first three innings but a leadoff walk to Bryce Harper in the fourth was followed by a two-run Nick Castellanos homer that put the Phillies up 2-1.
The homer was the fourth Manoah has allowed on a slider this season – the same number he allowed all of last year. While the Phillies also made four outs on sliders while fouling off eight others, it’s not the weapon it was a year ago, when hitters swung through it 31.8 per cent of the time, compared to 11.5 per cent this year.
Manoah threw it a touch harder in 2022 at 81.5 m.p.h. compared to 81 now, but the bigger change is in the horizontal break on the pitch, from 14.5 inches to 12.7 inches. As he’s fought command issues, it’s made everything play down for him, leading to the erratic results.
“When that’s there, he’s as effective as anyone in the league,” Schneider said of the slider before the game, “and when it’s not, it’s tough to really finish someone off with one or two pitches.”
When the slider is effective, “it opens up back-door two-seamer, elevated four-seamer,” added Schneider. “Especially against a team like this, if they can eliminate a pitch it’s going to be really tough. Landing that thing to both righties and lefties is going to be key for him.”