DUNEDIN, Fla. — John Thomson could’ve easily just headed out the clubhouse doors. Instead, he walked over to where Tomo Ohka stood, surrounded by reporters, and Thomson gave the Japanese pitcher a pat on the back — the universal baseball sign for "Good job today."
With that, Ohka gave a nod and Thomson made his way toward the exit. The two pitchers are in direct competition with one another for a spot in Toronto’s rotation, and over the past two weeks, Ohka has been cruising, while Thomson has been slipping.
On Monday, Ohka turned in another five strong innings — this time against the Yankees in a 9-1 win at Knology Park. The right-hander gave up one run on three hits and three 64 pitches, including 37 strikes. Ohka allowed four runs in his first inning of the spring four outings ago, but he’s yielded just one run in his last 13 frames.
Thomson, meanwhile, started in a Triple-A game on Monday and gave up six runs on four hits with three walks and four strikeouts in five innings. In his last two starts, the right-hander has given up 12 runs on nine hits over 8 2/3 innings.
After Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun was done speaking about Ohka’s performance, he learned about Thomson’s outing.
"They always say these things sort themselves out," said Zaun, referring to the competition. "But you hate to see it sorted out like that."
Ohka has been very impressive, though. He and Josh Towers appear to be the current leaders for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. On Monday, Ohka wasn’t entirely pleased with his performance, but Zaun was raving about it.
"He’ll come in the dugout every once in a while and talk about a pitch or rag on himself a little bit, saying, ‘Oh, that was terrible,’ or whatever," Zaun said. "But he’s rolling right now. He’s got a pretty good idea of what he’s doing."
Against New York, Ohka wasn’t able to use his sinker much because of the windy conditions. Instead, the righty turned more to his cutter and was extremely effective with it. During one at-bat against Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, Ohka even snuck in a slide step, which caught the hitter off guard.
"He actually did a slide step changeup on his own and ended up jamming A-Rod," Zaun said. "There wasn’t any chance the guy was going to try to steal with A-Rod at the plate. But he used a quick move to the plate to be a little bit more deceptive to mess up his timing and it was really effective."
After discussing a few of Ohka’s pitches, Zaun was asked how many different pitches the Japanese starter threw. Zaun chuckled and began to rattle them off.
"Let’s see, sinker, four-seam fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, split, change — that’s seven," Zaun said. "We try to make things simple. I don’t have seven fingers on one hand, so I had to let him throw two pitches off of one sign."
One other thing that Zaun likes about Ohka is his ability to reach back for a little more on his fastball when he needs to. The pitcher tends to stay in the high 80s with his fastball, but Zaun said he can dial that up to 91 mph if the situation dictates it.
"He does what I wish more of our pitchers would do, which is to save a little something to reach back for when they need it," Zaun said. "Most of our guys are max effort all the time. You see five, six straight fastballs at 93, and when it’s time to put somebody away, they have to go to the offspeed stuff instead of reaching back for a little something extra on the fastball."
Ohka is providing an easy decision for Toronto, which dished out $1.5 million for a one-year contract to sign the pitcher this past offseason. But there are still two weeks left this spring, and Towers, Thomson, Casey Janssen, and to a lesser extent, Victor Zambrano, are all in the running for starting jobs. It’s more likely that Zambrano either begins in the bullpen, or begins in the Minors to stretch out more as a starter.
"It’s going to be a tough decision. I can’t see the decision being easy for anybody," Zaun said. "They’ve got a nice luxury. It’s been a great camp and everybody’s throwing the ball well and I don’t envy the decision they have to make at the end of camp."
We’ll all just have to stay tuned…