DUNEDIN, Fla. — The fit just seems right for Jesse Chavez. Down to the shoes. Even on a day such as Tuesday, when the now-finesse pitcher was, in his words, “just a tick off in terms of location,” it was easy to understand his sense of peace.
You have these days in spring training. Three innings, five hits, a couple of runs, pitching almost all of the first and third innings out of the stretch against major-leaguers and sailing through the second against the scrubs. Chavez is in his second go-round with the Toronto Blue Jays but, my goodness, he hasn’t seen them like this before. Defending American League East champions with the type of defence he couldn’t dream of from his ham-handed teammates last season, the Oakland Athletics. Josh Donaldson ended the first with a strong catch and throw to first base; he ended a troublesome third by starting a double play.
“Pete said coming out of the bullpen it was as good as he’s seen him,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “We know what he is; he’s going to be big for us this year.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Walker cautioned against casting the fifth starter job as a battle between Aaron Sanchez and Gavin Floyd. But then, that’s his job, isn’t it? Walker was quick to add the names of Drew Hutchison and Chavez into the mix, and there is a slim scenario in which one of them makes the rotation out of spring: that would be if Marco Estrada’s back flares up enough to require a season-opening stint on the 15-day disabled list, but even then only if Sanchez is in the bullpen.
And Estrada doesn’t seem concerned about that.
While Chavez sweated his way through three innings at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the Blue Jays kept J.A. Happ away from an AL East rival by having him toss five innings at the Bobby Mattick Complex. Close by, Estrada took the mound against minor-leaguers and struck out four over two innings in his first taste of anything other than a simulated game due to a back strain. He relied heavily on off-speed pitches in his first inning under the watchful eyes of Paul Quantrill, one of the Blue Jays' minor-league pitching coordinators.
"The hardest part was sitting down – that’s when it stiffened up a bit but once I got moving it loosened up," said Estrada, who raised his eyebrows when asked when he’d be ready to pitch in a Grapefruit League game.
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"Hopefully my next (game)," Estrada said. "I feel good enough to do it. Just having the feel for my pitches will be the toughest thing. I’m not not worried about my back and the only way I’m going to get my feeling back is to face these guys."
Hutchison, whose status as the Blue Jays' opening day starter in 2015 now seems to have occurred in a different decade, will start Wednesday night in Tampa against the New York Yankees. That means the Yankees will run out their regular lineup against Hutchison, who’ll have some good defence behind him since the Blue Jays are taking Russ Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Donaldson, Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar and Jose Bautista along. This will be the most significant outing of the spring for Hutchison; it’s also the perfect opportunity to showcase a pitcher as possible trade bait.
Chavez seems tailor-made for a role similar to that once manned for the Blue Jays by Carlos Villanueva – that of a true swing man. Indeed, Chavez seems to have mastered the role; he’s something more than a journeyman and something less than six guaranteed innings every five days. And that’s OK. Chavez’s track record is that of a guy who starts strong and fades at the end, and Gibbons wonders if maybe the fact that Chavez is so lean – it’s tough to see a Blue Jays player with less body fat than Chavez – has contributed to that.
If the Blue Jays know what Chavez is, so too does the pitcher himself. That wasn’t always the case. Chavez remembers when the Kansas City Royals turned him into a side-arm thrower during a two-year stint with the organization. It was a failed experiment.
"I had to find myself," Chavez said, shrugging. "I came here and learned about myself in a short period of time and just harnessed it."
Chavez was claimed off waivers by Toronto in October 2011 and treaded water in the minor-league system while making nine mostly ‘meh’ appearances with the Blue Jays before the Athletics claimed him off waivers on Aug 24. It was a fortuitous waiver claim for both sides. Chavez continued to improve, fiddled around with his repertoire, and can even remember the night it all came together for him: June 13, 2013, when he pitched the final 5.2 innings in a 3-2, 14-inning win for the Athletics over the New York Yankees.
"Cutter, curveball … everything clicked mechanically," he said. "I really believe that can happen, that it can just take one outing. From that point, I just kept telling myself: ‘Don’t change, the way you did the past four or five years."
Gibbons remembers those lost years for Chavez. He was the bench coach for the Royals when the botched side-arming experiment was conducted. But that doesn’t bother Chavez anymore. He’s back where the seed of success was planted – and if you believe in these things, perhaps the shoes were a sign.
Ah yes. The shoes. As a finesse pitcher, Chavez is used to living with his finicky self. And so it bothered him this spring when his new spikes … well, let’s let him explain it.
"My right foot is half on and half off the rubber," he explained. "It’s a little different. When I have shoes with three spikes on the back … it just seems like I get wobbly." Wobbly? Yes, wobbly. "The older models have more spikes in the front, and all around the middle of the foot. That’s where I get my push. I mean, at the start of spring it was like I was hoping I would be comfortable and hope that my foot was going to stick when I delivered a pitch."
Chavez reached back to his past for help.
"Turns out I had a pair with me – an older pair – from the last time I was with the Blue Jays," he said, shrugging. "They’re perfect."
Jesse Chavez. Blue Jay. Feels right. Fits right. Asked about the battle for the fifth starter spot, his response was: "It’s not about me or him. It’s about us."