Clayton Richard delivers on modest expectations in Blue Jays debut

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Clayton Richard lived up to modest expectations in his Blue Jays debut. (CP)
Clayton Richard lived up to modest expectations in his Blue Jays debut. (CP)

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t enter Thursday’s game with the Red Sox in an enviable situation, pitching-wise.

Toronto’s bullpen had just come off a 13-inning marathon and taking the mound was Clayton Richard, the 11th man to start a game for the Blue Jays this year. To make matters worse, Richard was severely limited having just returned from a stress reaction in his knee with just 3.1 minor-league rehab innings under his belt.

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"He's going to have like 50-60 pitches,” manager Charlie Montoyo said before the game. “His last bullpen looked pretty good, so I'm expecting 3-4 good innings from him."

Although Montoyo set the bar pretty low, it’s safe to say Richard cleared it despite the Blue Jays’ 8-2 loss, giving his manager four innings of one-run ball against a good lineup that’s starting to heat up.

“I really feel good about this game because of that,” Montoyo said. “His four innings were good. He threw strikes. His ball had movement on it. He was really good, which is a good sign for us. I’m really happy about his outing.”

Despite the Red Sox’s potent bats, Richard’s greatest obstacle on the day was probably himself as he tried to get back in the flow of things. The 35-year-old had as many walks (2) as hits allowed, and gave the Red Sox three free bases with a pair of blunders — a throwing error on a pickoff move in the first and a balk in the third that ultimately cost him a scoreless outing.

“That’s the first balk call I’ve seen this year,” Montoyo said. “In my opinion it wasn’t one. I went out there for a minute, but you’re not supposed to argue balk calls, the umpire allowed me to say my piece and we left it at that.”

“I haven’t had a chance to watch it to see exactly what happened, but the previous time I had the ball I picked over it quick,” Richard added. “I felt like I did the exactly same thing on the following pitch where they called a balk.”

While those misadventures would typically be indicative of a pitcher trying to do too much, aggressively controlling the running game is part of Richard’s MO. He’s got 36 pickoffs in his career, and per FanGraphs he’s saved 15 runs by keeping the running game down — tied for sixth-best among the 2,266 pitchers who’ve appeared in the bigs since his rookie year in 2008.

Just because Richard held Boston to a single run, that doesn’t mean the lefty was spectacular. Far from it. He showed the Red Sox only two pitches, one of which was a two-seamer averaging 90.4 mph. He only struck out two batters. He left quite a few pitches over the heart of the plate. This was not a tour de force.

“Clearly, mechanically there were some issues. I didn’t command the ball as well as I would like to,” the southpaw said. “But to come away being in the ballgame after four innings is the end goal and I was able to do that, so I feel good about that part of it.”

More than anything else, it was a stabilizing outing. If Richard had totally flopped he would have put his bullpen in a tough position. A dud would have also forced the team to run Ryan Feierabend into the ground and question whether they’d brought the veteran back too soon. The consequences of a two-inning blow-up would have been dire — or at least as dire as things get when wins and losses aren’t the top priority.

When the Blue Jays grabbed Richard from the Padres in the offseason, they weren’t expecting brilliance. You can’t get brilliance for $1.5 million and a 26-year-old non-prospect like Connor Panas. What they wanted was someone who could soak up some innings if their youngsters proved unable to.

Earlier in the season when the rotation was rolling that didn’t look like a necessity. With injuries to Matt Shoemaker, Ryan Borucki, Clay Buchholz plus underperformance from young options like Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley, the picture is far bleaker now.

"It sucks. It sucks for all of us personally, it sucks for our families, it sucks for the fans, it sucks for the team,” Shoemaker, who’s in town checking in with the Blue Jays medical staff, said of the injuries. “But we're all in it together. We're all going to push through it, stay positive, and be better for it."

That may be true, but in the short term the Blue Jays need a dose of competence and reliability urgently. Richard looked like a guy who could provide it on Thursday.

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