DUNEDIN, Fla. — For the Toronto Blue Jays to make the most of their MLB-leading offence, they’ll need some decent pitching, too. In that context, Monday’s 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves means a little more than most spring contests.
The Blue Jays relied on five big league pitchers rather than the mix of non-roster invitees and prospects often found in early spring games. The combination of R.A. Dickey, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Storen, Brett Cecil and Roberto Osuna allowed just one run while striking out six and walking one.
“We threw some pretty good pitching at them,” manager John Gibbons said. “Those are some of our key guys. They all looked good.”
In his spring debut Cecil allowed just one hit while striking out one batter. Most importantly, the calf muscle he tore last October responded well to the test of game action.
"I just wanted the calf to feel good," Cecil said. "I knew it was, but just getting out there in a game situation and not feeling anything which was the case. I don’t worry about results or anything, just wanted to feel nothing."
The left-hander, who’s scheduled to make his next appearance Friday, impressed Gibbons with a sharp curveball. That wasn’t the only curve on display, as Sanchez used his breaking ball effectively after some early misses. The right-hander spiked his first three curves before finding a consistent release point and combining the pitch with his sinking fastball to great effect.
"He was bouncing his curveball, then he found it and started throwing that for strikes," Gibbons said. "A real good day for him."
In three innings of work, Sanchez allowed five hits and one run. He struck out three without walking a batter, an encouraging sign considering the early-season command issues he battled in 2015. To replicate the challenge of starting a big league game, Sanchez also mixed in his cutter and his change-up. As a reliever late last season, the 23-year-old rarely needed much more than a fastball, so this is the Blue Jays’ chance to evaluate his off-speed stuff.
"He’s still developing," Gibbons said. "He can throw it on the side all he wants, but he’s got to take it to the game, even if it’s just a spring training game."
Sanchez says the adjustment has been working.
"You see more pitching than throwing," he said. "I’m pleased. Obviously I’m (planning) to make strides going forward, but if I can keep my heater where it’s at and my curveball after today and work on some more things, it’s going to be a fun year for me."
The stadium radar gun clocked Sanchez in the 96-98 mph range for the second consecutive outing, an increase from the 94.9 mph he averaged last year. Perhaps the 20-plus pounds of muscle he added over the winter has started paying dividends.
"Right now I’m not even trying (to throw hard)," Sanchez said. "I’m just trying to make sure I’m filling up the strike zone and make sure I’m executing good pitches. To be honest with you I don’t think I’ve looked at the board once. That velocity is just how good I’m feeling right now. Hopefully it continues to get better."
R.A. Dickey started the game, allowing just one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings. He didn’t strike anyone out, relying instead on the Blue Jays’ defenders.
"I’m a pitcher that likes to pitch to contact even with a pitch that’s a chaotically moving pitch, I still try to get them to put the ball in play in three pitches or less," Dickey said. "That’s my goal. To look behind me and to have those guys back there, it lets you take a deep breath and be glad."
Between the knuckleballer, the hard-throwing right-hander and the trio of late-inning relief arms, it wasn't an easy day to be a Braves hitter. With the challenge of fitting the pieces together still a couple of weeks away, the Blue Jays can simply enjoy days like this for a little longer.