Blue Jays starting pitchers find camaraderie with group walkout ritual

BALTIMORE — One day back in early August, the Toronto Blue Jays rotation of Robbie Ray, Hyun Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, Alek Manoah and just-added Jose Berrios gathered to kick around some ideas. They’d been looking, Ray recalls, for a way to build in more group activity into the largely individual routine of a starting pitcher, something that would “bring us together.” Manoah, the 23-year-old rookie, suggested they watch the day’s starter warm up and then walk out together from the bullpen to the dugout before games.

“We just ran with it,” says Ray.

They debuted the group walkout Aug. 15 in Seattle, hanging with Matz in the bullpen and then trailing behind him once he was done. The lefty allowed only an unearned run in five innings of work during an 8-3 win over the Mariners, beginning a dominant run for a rotation that’s underpinned the club’s play over the past month.

Since that outing, the Blue Jays rotation is fifth in the majors with a Fangraphs WAR of 3.0, their 150 innings of work tied for second in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds, their ERA of 3.84 sitting eighth and their strikeouts per nine rate of 9.66 third. Linking the staff success to the walkout is seeking causation in coincidental correlation, to be sure, but pitching coach Pete Walker believes the camaraderie among the five starters is a legitimate boost psychologically.

“It shows a strong bond, that guys have each other’s backs and it’s a strong message to the starter that he’s got a group behind him, watching him, watching his back and looking forward to the next time they get the ball,” he explains. “It’s been great for this group. Moving forward, it’s something we want to continue to build on. I think there’s a lot to it.”

The concept isn’t a first for the Blue Jays, as in 2019 Clayton Richard took it to a staff that included Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker and Trent Thornton, the only member of that group still on the team but now an up-and-down relief arm.

While Matz was also part of group walkouts on the New York Mets staffs that included Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, the idea was all new to Manoah before he broached it. There was nothing similar during his college days at West Virginia and once he got to the majors, “it looked empty” to him when the starter walked in with only the catcher and Walker.

“I thought, ‘Why are we here in the dugout when we could be there?’” says Manoah. “We’d watch them walk out anyway, so I was just like, ‘Man, why don’t we just all walk in together?’ I feel like that shows unity, we’re all together, it doesn’t matter whether we do good or bad, we got each other’s backs.”

Ray immediately seized on the idea and Matz relayed how with the Mets, “it gave me confidence like I’m part of this group with some of the best in the game, and they’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs.”

Berrios, who hadn’t done it with the Minnesota Twins, sees the walkout as a way for the starters to help motivate each other, describing it as “a special feeling” to warm up with the other four starters keeping an eye and then walking to the field together.

“Doing that together, that helped to grow our chemistry and all that stuff,” adds Berrios, acquired at the deadline from the Twins. “When we’ve got really good chemistry, we can do a lot of good things out there.”

As the youngest and least experienced member of the rotation, Manoah probably draws the most benefit from the entire process. While all five starters watch how the others prepare, four of them have routines that are long established and set.

Manoah, who already has a pretty good idea of what to do, studies them closely, looking for “what gets them going” and the “facial reactions to see the mentality.”

“A lot of times with me, I try not to take the bullpen out onto the mound,” he continues. “And I see the same thing with them because you could have a really bad bullpen and when you get on the mound have a really good game. But if you take that bullpen onto the mound, that can be really bad. There will be times when my slider is not where I need it to be and I’ll keep throwing it, whereas with them, whether it’s good or bad, they’re just getting a feel for it. Then they go into the game and they’ll make the adjustments there.

“We can’t waste too many bullets out there. So continue to learn that and just try and separate and understand that’s a warm up and the game is the game.”

In that way, they’re finding ways to pour into each other and the team in the four days when they’re not pitching in a game.

“It’s great,” says Ray. “You’re down there supporting your brother, your starting pitcher while he’s warming up and then we’re walking in together. Some bigger guys, too. For me, other teams probably look at it, maybe it’s a little bit intimidating seeing these big guys all walking in together, all in unison. Like you’re facing all of us, it’s not just one guy.”

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