Griffin: Henderson Alvarez tosses Blue Jays second straight shutout over Angels
ANAHEIM-The belief over the last three seasons has been that “as Jose Bautista goes, so goes the Blue Jays' offence.” Thus, when the Jays' badly slumping right fielder crushed an Ervin Santana fastball to deep left centre field for his fifth home run of the year, a two-run blast in the third to lead the Jays to a 4-0 win, all signs pointed to a good night for Henderson Alvarez and company. Moments like that have been rare for Bautista thus far.
“I'm trying to have good at-bats,” Bautista said of his philosophy. “Even today I only got one hit, but I felt I had four good at-bats. I was 3-2 the two times that I didn't do anything.
“It's just that I'm not seeing many pitches over the heart of the plate. I'm seeing strikes, but they're just really good pitcher's pitches on the corners. They're not making many mistakes. Today they made one and I was able to attack it.”
The night before, in facing Dan Haren, Bautista, who has batted in the three-hole every game this season, had looked dazed and confused as he went hitless in four at-bats, with two strikeouts, one that bounced four feet in front of the plate that he chased and the other that painted the outside corner. Instead of his usual flashes of temper, he accepted each failed at-bat with quiet resignation. Worrisome.
“When you're not doing your job the right way or how you're capable of doing it, it is going to affect you if you care about what you're doing,” Bautista said. “That's just what's happening to me. A lot of bad breaks have been going not my way. I just hope the tide turns soon.”
Fact is in the recent history of these two teams it's usually been Santana that has gotten the better of the Jays. The hard-throwing righhander had defeated the Jays five times in his previous six starts, but this time he was bested by the strike-throwing 22-year-old Alvarez. Just as had been with Brandon Morrow on Thursday, the young Venezuelan matched up well against an aggressive hitting Angels' lineup.
“He has a heavy sinker that he's going to throw on the plate,” Jays' manager John Farrell said. “You go through 10 starts a year ago, the book gets out on guys. He's going to be around the plate. He's going to throw strikes. He typically, you would think, would get more contact early in the count.”
Alvarez did in fact pound the strike zone early and often. Over the course of his nine shutout innings, Alvarez threw 97 pitches, allowing just five hits, with a walk and three strikeouts. It was his second straight win, after recording just one victory over his first 14 career starts.
“Just another outstanding pitched game tonight,” manager John Farrell said. “Henderson, right from the first pitch through the 97th, stayed in his delivery well, didn't overthrow the baseball, couple of comebackers up the middle that fortunately didn't get him too much. A lot of first-pitch strikes, a lot of strikes overall and with that sinker can neutralize their power and keep the ball on the ground.”
The Jays' defence was solid to spectacular. Colby Rasmus made a nice running catch off Kendrys Morales. Yunel Escobar speared a line drive to his right, ticketed for left field. Brett Lawrie scooped a one-hop rocket on the backhand off Mike Trout and threw him out.
“They did a great job,” Alvarez said through interpreter Luis Rivera. “They played good defence tonight, but they also were in the right position.”
When he found himself in trouble early in innings and needed a double play, he resorted to what he does best to escape jams in the second and seventh innings, coaxing groundballs. In the second, with men on first and second, Mark Trumbo grounded sharply to Escobar to start a double play. In the sixth it was Howie Kendrick doing the same thing with Torii Hunter on first.
“I feel like this is the best game I've ever pitched,” Alvarez admitted. “In Low-A ball I pitched a complete-game also but that doesn't compare to a big-league game. My sinker was moving. I felt like after the first inning, if my sinker continued to move the way it was then I would have a good night.”
Despite a fastball that touches 95-97 miles-per-hour, Alvarez does not miss many opposing bats. He is the classic "pitch-to-contact" type. On Friday, it didn't seem to be a problem, but the question was asked, should he try for more Ks as his career progresses?
“It's almost like saying you're going to revamp a delivery to try and create deception or you're going to come up, or attempt to come up with a breaking ball that physically, he might not be able to throw,” Farrell cautioned. “He's a contact pitcher, he's a groundball pitcher. There's going to be less swing and miss with those type of pitchers to begin with. No, sometimes you look at guys and take them for who they are, which in his case is a very good athlete who's going to always have a high groundball rate. No, it's not being overly concerned with the swing and miss.”
As a pitcher, when you induce a lot of groundballs, odds are that some will be back to the mound and that some of those will be shots. There were three such grounders for Alvarez that tested his athleticism. In the fifth inning, Erick Aybar scorched a one-hopper. As he finished his delivery rotating through the ideal fielding position, he reached behind him and the ball hit him squarely on the left hamstring. He recovered and made the play, prompting a visit by trainer George Poulis. He was OK.
The second tough fielding play came in the sixth inning. Maicer Izturis drilled a grounder back to the hill that Alvarez blocked. It rolled down the front of the mound onto the grass. He retrieved it and threw a strike to Adam Lind. The final hard-hit grounder to him was a ball he stabbed at, a rocket through the middle by catcher Bobby Wilson into centre field for a two-out hit.
When Maicer Izturis opened the ninth with a double to left-centre, it seemed the complete game and the shutout were in doubt with the meat of the Angels order scheduled. He finished the task.
“The only thing to worry about was the next hitter,” Alvarez explained. “It was Pujols and then next hitter and the next hitter. I wasn't thinking about the complete game or the shutout. I was concentrating on the next hitter.”
Farrell was asked, after Morrow's Thursday gem, a 102-pitch three-hit shutout, whether Alvarez with his pitch-to-contact approach and his groundball generating ability to get two outs on one pitch was a future candidate for a 100-pitch complete game.
“In the right set of circumstances, aggressive team, lot of strikes early in the count, even if a guy gets on with a base hit, the two outs with one pitch is something that he's been very adept at, so you don't see that changing,” Farrell said. “Alvarez has that ability.”
Meanwhile, it's not like his mound opponent was horrible. Santana, whose record dropped to 0-6 in six starts, allowed just the three third innings runs on three hits, striking out 10 Blue Jays in eight innings. It was the eighth career start with 10 or more strikeouts.
The Jays added a run in the ninth against reliever Jason Isringhausen on a hit-and-run single by Eric Thames and a fielder's choice by Lawrie driving in Edwin Encarnacion.
The Morrow and Alvarez back-to-back complete games were the first by the Jays since September 25-26, 2008 at New York and Baltimore by Roy Halladay and Scott Richmond. The back-to-back shutouts were the first by the Jays since June 16-17, 1993 by Jack Morris and Al Leiter.
Farrell suggested that the lack of work for his bullpen because of the complete games was not a problem, in fact was more like payback for the workload the relievers were handed early on.
The Jays have now won four in a row and are 16-11, with seven games remaining on the road trip to Anaheim, Oakland and Minneapolis.