Blue Jays spring takeaways: Beefed-up Sanchez flashes velocity

Joe Siddall, Ben Nicholson-Smith and Barry Davis discuss the transition to starter by Aaron Sanchez and the health of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Toronto Blue Jays put together an exciting two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth to tie things up with the Philadelphia Phillies in their Grapefruit League home opener, but there was no payoff to be had, as the teams pulled the plug after nine innings with the score still tied.

Such are sometimes the goings-on where spring training games are concerned – and a tie is better than a loss, right?

Here are a few things that stood out about the Jays’ saw-off with the Phillies.

AARON SANCHEZ THROWS HARD: The big righty, who got even bigger in the off-season with 25 pounds of added bulk, will be a story all spring as the Blue Jays try to decide whether the team is better off with him in the rotation or in the bullpen. On Wednesday, he reminded all who were watching just how much the ball explodes out of his hand.

Sanchez was a free-and-easy 95-96 m.p.h. over his two innings, topping out at 98 on the gun. He struck out three without a walk – though he did get into a few deep counts - and the only hard contact against him was Aaron Altherr’s mammoth home run to left with one out in the fourth. The gopher ball came on a Sanchez change-up that clocked in at 90 m.p.h. A change-up. At 90.

One of Sanchez’ main competitors for the final spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation is Jesse Chavez, and while the slight righty doesn’t throw as hard, he had a pretty clean outing to begin his second tour of duty with the club. Chavez threw a hitless fifth and sixth, allowing naught but a solitary base on balls.

R.A. Dickey started the game and looked terrific. The knuckleballer allowed a run on two hits over his two innings, but the hits were a bloop double to left field and a weak ground single against the shift. He didn’t walk anyone and got a strikeout, four ground balls and three pop-ups in facing eight hitters.

THE MVP IS BACK IN THE SWING: While Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista work slowly towards their spring debuts, Josh Donaldson is all systems go. The reigning A.L. MVP started Wednesday’s game at third base, hit second and reached base in both his plate appearances. Donaldson grounded a 3-2 pitch into right-centre in the first inning, using the Phillies’ shift against them, and took one in the ribcage in his second trip, earning a painful trip to first base.

He came up to the broadcast booth to sit in with me and Ben Nicholson-Smith for the sixth inning with an ice pack still on his ribs, and shared this year’s message to his teammates with us.

Last season the Donaldson quote that resonated the most was, “This isn’t the try league, this is the get it done league.” He said it in May when the Blue Jays had lost six of seven and fallen four games below the break-even mark. As we know, the Jays eventually pulled out of that slide and definitely went on to get it done, hence the 2015 division championship banner that hangs at Rogers Centre.

While he was up in the booth with us, Donaldson said that he has told his teammates that, “Last year was just the beginning.” He didn’t say there’s a lot of work to do, nor that there’s unfinished business. Instead, he’s sure there’s more to come. And if last year was just the beginning, then this year is going to be a whole lot of fun.

THE KID CAN SWING IT: Richard Urena turned 20 last week. The shortstop, who split last season between low-A Lansing and high-A Dunedin, is the Blue Jays’ fourth-ranked prospect according to Baseball America and is in his first big league camp.

He pinch-ran for Justin Smoak in Tuesday’s Grapefruit League opener and was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a Darwin Barney single, then got his first spring plate appearances in Wednesday’s tie.

First time up for Urena was against big-league veteran Jeanmar Gomez, and the kid took Gomez into the gap in left-centre for a double. He got up again in the bottom of the ninth, after Rowdy Tellez kept the game alive with a two-out single, and hit a hard ground ball into right field for another base hit, setting up the game-tying wild pitch.

Through the first two spring games, Blue Jays shortstops (Urena, Barney and Jio Meir) are a combined 7-for-8 with four doubles and five runs batted in, and that’s not including shortstop-turned-second baseman Ryan Goins, who threw his bat into the ring on Wednesday with a loud two-run triple off the wall in centre field.

The Blue Jays put their unbeaten spring mark on the line as they hit the road to McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., to meet the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday afternoon. Gavin Floyd will make his first sortie in a Jays’ uniform, facing lefty Jonathon Niese. Shi Davidi and I will have all the action for you, live on