TORONTO – Julian Merryweather still hadn’t officially made the Toronto Blue Jays when he showed up to Yankee Stadium for the season’s opening game on Thursday morning.
By the late afternoon, he was throwing 99 m.p.h. fastballs in on the hands of Giancarlo Stanton, spotting change-ups on the bottom edge of the strike zone and throwing sliders for called strikes. All it took was 11 pitches to strike out the middle of the Yankees’ order in quick succession and suddenly, it was easy to dream on the potential of a pitcher who was hardly heard from at all during spring training.
99 with late life from Julian Merryweather today pic.twitter.com/wGplApFpMU
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) April 2, 2021
“The moment itself, being in Yankee Stadium was pretty surreal,” Merryweather said afterwards. “That’s like little league dreams right there.”
For Merryweather, that first ever save represents a career milestone. For the Blue Jays, the way he got there was perhaps just as important as the end result. Few pitchers combine velocity, movement and command the way Merryweather did Thursday afternoon, and as long as he’s healthy enough to sustain this, he has the ability to contribute in high-leverage innings.
As one MLB scout said, “Just straight dominant.”
“He’s got the stuff,” manager Charlie Montoyo added. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to help us all year. We knew that’s what he can do and he did it (Thursday). It doesn’t get more high-leverage than what he did.”
While some pitchers condense their repertoires while pitching in relief, Merryweather used three pitches against the Yankees, keeping the middle of their lineup off-balance with offerings as slow as 78.7 m.p.h. and as fast as 99.1 m.p.h. Even the middle of New York’s lineup had no answer for him on a day all of his pitches were working.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Julian Merryweather’s statistics against New York Yankees’ Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres on April 1, 2021.
“I came in just feeling good and feeling confident with everything,” said Merryweather, who was acquired as the player to be named for Josh Donaldson in 2018. “To be able to feel it all come together in the bullpen and have it work out in the game was great.”
That in itself is a significant development for a team looking to backfill for the loss of closer Kirby Yates to Tommy John surgery, especially since Merryweather’s status was uncertain after a spring in which back stiffness limited him to just two Grapefruit League appearances. And while it was the most significant development for the pitching staff Thursday, it wasn’t the only one.
By turning to Tyler Chatwood with a runner on in the sixth inning of a tie game, Montoyo showed he’s comfortable using the right-hander in high-leverage spots. This time the move worked, as Chatwood escaped without allowing any runs and topped out at 95.1 m.p.h. with his fastball.
Chatwood did walk a hitter before escaping trouble, but David Phelps had an ever closer call the following inning when he allowed two hits before escaping with a double play. For what it’s worth, Phelps averaged 91.5 m.p.h. with his fastball, down from 94.1 m.p.h. a year ago.
All of which to say that the Blue Jays, like all teams in baseball, will spend much of the season seeking answers in their bullpen. With that in mind, they’ve recently connected with left-hander Mike Montgomery, who became a free agent after asking for his release from the Mets late last month. A veteran of six big-league seasons, Montgomery has pitched extensively as a starter and a reliever on his way to a lifetime 3.84 ERA.
Of course the Blue Jays check on many players, and interest doesn’t always equate to deals, but it’s a possibility worth monitoring especially since the front office can open up a 40-man spot when needed simply by shifting Yates to the 60-day injured list.
That’s mostly hypothetical, though. Merryweather’s performance against the Yankees, on the other hand, was very real. There’s reason to be cautious in setting workload expectations for a pitcher who has battled injuries for much of his career, including as recently as last month. But as long as Merryweather can pitch like this, the Blue Jays have a difference maker with stuff that’s good enough to retire the game’s best hitters.
“I’ve always been open to whatever role they’re going to use me in, whether it’s an opener, long relief guy in extra innings,” he said. “It’s just about being ready for the whole game.”