Kevin Gausman solid in a split no-decision in his Blue Jays debut

Kevin Gausman came exactly as advertised in his debut for Toronto.

The signature splitter, most notably, was nosediving just before it reached the plate, inducing batters to take flailing swings if they took the bat off their shoulder at all. Of the five strikeouts the lanky right-hander racked up against Texas, four resulted directly from his split finger, the same pitch that generated a double-play ball to end the fifth inning as the Blue Jays edged Texas 4-3 Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre, their second straight win in this embryonic season.

And if Gausman’s fastball was not yet quite where he would like it to be — he allowed eight hits in five innings of a no-decision in his inaugural trip to the hill wearing Blue Jay threads — the package still augers well for the marquee moundsman and for Toronto’s fortunes.

“I felt good. Split usually always feels pretty good,” Gausman said. “There was a couple I left up in the zone a bit. More than anything that one inning got away from me a little. Just some fastballs I was trying to go up. Kind of missed down in the zone and that’s a big pitch for me. It’s something I’m still trying to get into mid-season form. Started out pretty good, being able to elevate.”

That one inning was the third frame, when Rangers scored all their runs, overcoming an early 2-0 deficit. Teoscar Hernández granted leadoff hitter Jonah Heim an extra base, and that was followed by a single and a double.

Gausman had five solid frames in his first starting assignment, after facing only one major-league lineup in spring training, and provided a preview of what to expect from Toronto’s reconstituted rotation, forecast as a team forte.

“Definitely different than some of the Field 1, Field 2 lineups that I was facing,” he said of the minor-league games he pitched in rather than showing the Yankees his stuff. The Jays’ next series starts in New York on Monday.

“This is a good team,” Gausman said of the Rangers, who lost 102 games last year, then spent more than half a billion dollars in free agency. “You can see what they did in the third inning, stringing some hits together. They didn’t really try to get too big, they just kind of slapped the ball around, hit it where it was pitched.”

That Gausman went five, with starters across baseball not yet up to full metal pitching jacket — blame the lockout and abbreviated spring training — was a relief to manager Charlie Montoyo, given that Friday’s wild encounter between these teams was essentially a bullpen day for Toronto, with José Berríos unable to get out of the first inning. That ‘pen could use even a small break, taxed so early in the season, with 30 games in 31 days to launch the schedule.

“It was huge for him to go to the fifth inning,” Montoyo said. “That was the key for us to win the game.”

Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman had a rough third inning but settled down, and the Toronto offense danced him out.

Grace note: Gausman emerged walk-free and has allowed one walk or fewer in 10 straight games, stretching back to 2021, the longest active streak in the majors.

The splitter is his bread and butter, what he has described as an “outlier pitch” because it’s fallen out of favour, or others simply are no longer very good at it. It is hard to locate with consistency. Gausman’s version, with its sharp downward action and tremendous spin — upward of 1,600 revolutions per minute — is just about unhittable.

But he suffers for his actual craft. Blisters, bloody blisters.

Even just the 80 pitches he tossed, deftly mixing in the splitter that looks so much like a fastball coming out of his hand, left Gausman with a blister on his middle finger, caused by the friction of the seam against the digit, right along the nail, to create that wicked spin.

So, right after icing the arm, it was straight to nail management, the intense manicure regimen required so that the blister will dissolve in time for his next start.

“Got a blister. I usually get one every game. It wasn’t too bad today. Something I just have to manage every single day.”

Pop it. Squeeze the blood out. Apply zinc on the inside. Groom the thing. Glue the nail back together if it’s been cracked.

“Every day when I start, I’m usually going home with a Band-Aid on my middle finger.”

C’est la baseball vie for a splitter artiste and Gausman has certainly learned how to handle it, the manicuring and lasering and split-finger avoidance in bullpens between starts. But the pitch is what makes Gausman — he has the seventh lowest ERA among starters since 2020 — and it was what made him tremendously attractive to the Jays, who inked him to a five-year $110-million (US) contract before the lockout curtain fell, and with Cy Young winner Robbie Ray heading out the door.

Gausman and No. 5 starter Yusei Kikuchi are the fresh additions to Toronto’s rotation in what many are claiming, rather prematurely, is the Jays’ best ever.

Gausman sees a quintet of starters who should be able to discombobulate opposing batters on the strength of profound diversity.

“We’re all very different pitchers. On any given night you’re not going to see what you saw the night before. Especially in a four-game series. That’s really going to bode well for us and I think it will really set up our bullpen to have success as well.

“I’m looking forward to diving in with these guys and investing in their careers as much as they invest in themselves. A pitching rotation like this, it’s huge to have guys who every single day you feel like you’re going to win the game. I honestly believe that all of us feel that way.”

Two down, 160 to go.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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