Meaningless spring game not so meaningless for Blue Jays

Hazel Mae and Jerry Howarth talk about Aaron Sanchez’s latest outing, and why it will be hard for the Blue Jays to keep him out of the starting rotation.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It was a day for cuts, bat-slamming and that rarest of occurrences, a Jose Bautista-arranged scrum – the latter with the caveat that any discussion about his contract was off-limits so, yeah, that lasted all of about four minutes.

Friday was just another meaningless spring training game – a 7-2 Toronto Blue Jays win over the Houston Astros – but damned if it wasn’t one that made me feel like writing about baseball. Besides, given the drama surrounding Aaron Sanchez’s place on the squad in two weeks time, even the meaningless doesn’t feel as meaningless as it should be.

Working with A.J. Jimenez behind the plate instead of Russel Martin, Sanchez had perhaps the most difficulty he’s had with his curve this spring, walking two – doubling his walk total to date – but still struck out five over 4.2 innings while giving up a single to Tyler White, a tomahawk-chopping first baseman bidding for a regular job with the Astros, and a double to Marwin Gonzalez. One of those walks was to the final batter be faced, Andrew Aplin.

“My thing once I get as many runs as that was to get the team back in as quickly as possible,” said Sanchez. “Obviously, I over-threw to the last guy and I was done.”

As for the big question?

"I’m just going to go out and execute and worry about what I can control," said Sanchez. "I want to give them (management) the best read on me. When the time comes, I’ll be ready regardless of the decision. They know what I want to do; everybody knows what I want to do. It’s just a matter of what makes the team best in April."

The hard news, as such, is that Dalton Pompey was among three players re-assigned to minor league camp before the game. Pompey will play every day at triple-A Buffalo and while that’s a comedown from 2015’s overreach, it is to he hoped that Pompey is smart enough to realize that he’s won over the new sets of eyes in president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins.

The simple truth is that most cuts in spring training are predictable – calling them cuts is a stretch in that it simply means players destined for the minor leagues are sent out to begin honing their skills for the regular season. They’ll get more swings or innings down in minor league camp than up here.

It’s time, now, for things to ratchet up a bit at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. A week down here and it’s obvious: Kevin Pillar will lead off, Michael Saunders will be in left field and one of Ezequiel Carrera, Darrell Ceciliani or Junior Lake will be the fourth outfielder, with two making it in the event Edwin Encarnacion’s oblique lands him on the 15-day disabled list to start. The final two spots in the bullpen, one of which will be a lefty specialist, are up for grabs if Aaron Loup’s elbow strain responds slowly. Sunday, Marco Estrada will back up J.A. Happ when the Baltimore Orioles come to Dunedin, and he’s scheduled to throw his first two innings of Grapefruit League play after recovering from a back injury.

"We talked about another outing in the minors, but I need to face some big league hitters," Estrada said matter-of-factly. "It’s time."

It surely is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some experimenting going on. The Astros, for example, sent Doug Fister on the trip because they have been working with him on using his cut fastball and change-up to right-handed hitters. "No sinkers," was the command from Astros manager A.J, Hinch, knowing the pitch is Fister’s bread and butter.

And what better team to force the matter than the Blue Jays and righty mashers Kevin Pillar, Josh Donaldson, Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Collabello? Bautista clubbed a three-run home run and Donaldson found no joy, drawing a walk and chasing for a strikeout that he punctuated by slamming his bat into the ground. Donaldson’s still looking for that first spring homer; we’re in the duality phase of spring training, when stuff matters even when people tell you it doesn’t.

Bautista’s home run was on a change-up. Tulowitzki also homered in the fifth off reliever Jandel Gustave.

"You pay attention when you’re facing a guy you might face in the American League," Bautista said of Fister. "I noticed he didn’t throw any sinkers, that he threw cutters and change-ups which is off his normal game plan. It makes sense, now."

The game was also the Blue Jays debut for 40-year-old side-arming left-hander Randy Choate, making a late bid for a bullpen spot and scheduled to throw again on Sunday. He faced one batter, lefty-swinging Luis Valbuena (because that’s what Randy Choate does) and induced a grounder on a 3-2 pitch. "He’s become a lot more disciplined at the plate," said Choate, who hadn’t seen Valbuena since he left the Chicago Cubs. "I threw a couple of pitches that he just spit on. Used to get him on that pitch, so I thought: ‘O.K. … this is different."

But the focus was on Sanchez, who is fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation – at least right now – even though manager John Gibbons admitted that even right now "he’s better than that." Friday morning, Shapiro told Stephen Brunt and myself that: "He has had a good spring down here in a starting role. We will balance that potential because, remember, he’s never pitched more than 130 innings … we’ll balance that reality with what we need to pitch an entire season and be a championship-calibre team."

Pitching coach Pete Walker made a trip to the mound to talk to Sanchez after he walked Jon Singleton with two out in the second inning, following a double play. The Blue Jays would only say that it was about "mechanics" and had Martin been behind the plate he would have likely handled it himself.

"He was strong today," Gibbons said. "The one thing he wasn’t doing was hitting on the curveball. He was spiking it on the dirt.

"It’s really tough," Gibbons said. "If you throw that hard you have to have arm speed, and it’s a really violent delivery. There’s really not a whole lot finesse to him at all."

Sanchez admitted that having electric stuff can sometimes cause the pitcher problems.

"My curve was super sharp; maybe too sharp," he said. "It was in the zone and out of the zone and it had so much depth I couldn’t throw it for strikes. But my change-up was good – I checked it (on the scoreboard) once and saw it was 88 (mph), so that was a positive. We wanted to kill some ball speed with my change going into the game.

"I think you’ll see later in the game that as I fatigue, the off-speed stuff gets better. It might just be a matter of taking a step back and working on it (the curve) a little more in the eight to 10 pitches I throw between innings. I need to find a way to drop that curve in on more counts."

That’s a lot of baseball talk for a meaningless game, isn’t it?