SEATTLE – Marco Estrada sat in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout 40 minutes before game-time, spinning a softball in his right hand, staring out deep in thought. The softball is a staple of his routine – he has short fingers for a pitcher and gripping the larger ball helps make a baseball feel smaller in his hand once he starts throwing it.
For a change-up artist like him, feel really matters. As for his contemplative gaze, two personal focal points emerged between starts. One was to avoid drifting forward in his delivery later in games, an issue identified during some video work. The other was staying on top of his change-up.
“That was basically the only thing on my mind,” says Estrada.
Seven-innings of one-hit baseball followed from the all-star right-hander in a steadying 3-2 Toronto Blue Jays victory Monday night over the Seattle Mariners.
Save for a Seth Smith rocket to the track in centre in the second inning, Estrada routinely missed barrels, induced weak contact and kept a pivotal game under his thumb. Given that he’d allowed 24 earned runs in 28.2 innings over his previous six starts, including a couple of head-scratching outings versus the Tampa Bay Rays in which he dominated early before unravelling stunningly, no one was certain how things would go.
Little wonder then that after taking a no-hitter into the seventh, striking out eight batters and throwing 23 of his 28 change-ups for strikes, getting 18 swings, five outs and five misses on his bread-and-butter offering, he smiled and said, “I’ve got to remember this feeling and I should be fine.”
“I stopped worrying so much about the grip, because it hasn’t been that good lately,” Estrada says of his change-up. “And the more I think about it, the more my grip starts to change. I just told myself, ‘Listen, just sell it, make your arm as fast as you can, throw it through the zone as fast as you can and who cares what the ball does. Just take the miles an hour off, but make it look like you’re throwing a fastball.’ That’s basically what I did today, it felt really good throwing a change-up today, finally, because I haven’t been very confident with it my last few outings.”
Estrada looked to have turned a corner Aug. 29 at Baltimore when he allowed a run on four hits and a walk over seven outstanding innings during a 5-1 win over the Orioles. But on Sept. 3 against the Rays, he cruised through five innings before surrendering five runs in a span of six batters in a sixth he couldn’t escape.
The next time out Sept. 9 against the Boston Red Sox, he was a hot mess in a 13-3 thrashing, allowing four runs, three earned, in 2.1 innings – his shortest outing of the year – and then Sept. 14 against Tampa Bay, he struck out his first five batters, looked untouchable, and ended up surrendering four runs in five shaky innings.
The usage of his changeup was down dramatically in each start – 15, 20 and 19 per cent, well off his average of 28 per cent – because he had lost faith in it. And when he doesn’t have the change working, he “kind of” feels naked on the mound.
“It’s everything for me,” says Estrada. “There have been so many change-ups I’ve thrown the last few games where I feel like it’s a good one and guys are just spitting all over it. I’m like, ‘Where am I throwing this pitch? Something’s got to be going on.’ I didn’t know if it was my body, my arm wasn’t getting through the zone right, maybe I was slowing something down. I probably should have paid a little more attention to that, but [Monday] I kind of stopped caring and just said, ‘Listen, grab the damn ball and throw it. Who cares what kind of action you get on it, keep it around the plate, keep it down and have that arm get through the zone as fast as possible.’”
The only hit Estrada surrendered Monday was on a down and away curveball to Robinson Cano leading off the seventh, which the slugger shot up the middle for a single. Good pitch to a good hitter. Happens. It was the fourth time over the past two seasons he’d taken a no-hitter into at least the seventh inning.
“We were starving for a win,” says manager John Gibbons. “The thing about Marco since we got him, he’s pitched as many big games as anybody and really rose to the occasion. He’s done a tremendous job here as a Blue Jay and tonight when the team needed him, again, he really stepped up. We’ve seen him do it many, many times.”
Adds Kevin Pillar, who stole a hit from Kyle Seager with a diving catch to end the fourth that saved at least a run after consecutive two-out walks: “For him to come out here after not pitching well his last couple of starts and step up and do what big-game pitchers do was awesome to see.”
Two regular-season starts remain for Estrada – Sept. 25 at home against the New York Yankees and Sept. 30 at Fenway versus the Red Sox – and the Blue Jays will be counting on him to remember exactly what he felt Monday night.