BALTIMORE – Marco Estrada has thrived since joining the Toronto Blue Jays, even without an overpowering fastball. Armed with a deceptive change-up and a sneaky curveball, the 33-year-old has pitched well in the regular season, and even better in the playoffs.
And yet no point during his tenure with the Blue Jays has Estrada been considered a strikeout pitcher. An expert at inducing weak contact, to be sure, but not a strikeout guy. Based on what we’ve seen from Estrada so far in 2017, that might be changing.
After a dominant, 12-strikeout outing against the Baltimore Orioles Sunday, Estrada ranks third in the American League in strikeouts behind only Chris Sale and Chris Archer. The outing allowed the Blue Jays to salvage one win from their weekend trip to Baltimore and beat the Orioles 3-1 to improve to 19-26 on the season.
“He’s been so good since he arrived here,” manager John Gibbons said. “I’ve seen Marco do that so many times. The team needed it, especially after a couple of tough ones.”
Estrada pitched into the eighth inning, generating swings and misses and weak contact all afternoon. The only blemish on his pitching line, a solo home run by Adam Jones, was one of just four hits he allowed to go along with only one walk. By the time he gave way to Joe Smith with two outs in the eighth, he had lowered his season ERA to 3.30.
Estrada had trouble locating early in his previous start, when the Atlanta Braves scored five times against him in a 9-5 loss. Between outings he worked on his delivery, and that resulted in better command against Baltimore. Or maybe there’s a simpler explanation for Sunday’s success.
“For some reason, my body just felt a little better this week, and I think that’s all it was,” Estrada said. “My arm felt loose. I just felt good out there today.”
Estrada came by his career-best 12 strikeouts honestly. He used his off-speed pitches to great effect, generating 16 swinging strikes, including nine on the change-up alone. As Gibbons said, “he can baffle you.”
Considering how much power the Orioles have, those results are especially encouraging.
“There’s no breaks over there,” Estrada said. “It’s a very talented lineup and you’ve got to make pitches, because any one of those guys can hit it out, especially here.”
Luke Maile got the start behind the plate, and continued his strong defensive work. At the same time, catching Estrada’s a pretty favourable assignment considering how well he commands his pitches.
“Luke’s done a great job filling in for Russ, it doesn’t matter who’s out there,” the 54-year-old Gibbons said. “But to be honest with you I could catch Marco at my age, now.”
At the plate, Devon Travis continued his impressive month at the plate with a first-inning home run that provided the Blue Jays with all the offence they’d need (or get) Sunday. The second baseman also singled, giving him at multi-hit games in six of his last seven starts. These days, his painfully slow start seems like a distant memory.
“I just want to help this team win, that’s the biggest thing, and when you’re struggling, you’re not helping the team win too much,” Travis said. “It makes it even harder to sleep at night.”
All told, the Blue Jays collected just six hits Sunday. Gibbons started Russell Martin at third base to get his bat in the lineup against left-hander Wade Miley, and he responded with a single. Anthony Alford, meanwhile, still awaits his first MLB hit, after getting the start in left field.
But even on a day that the Blue Jays’ bats were quiet, they got enough pitching. Smith escaped the eighth inning by striking out Chris Davis, and Roberto Osuna closed it out with his sixth save of the season. None of that would have been possible, however, without an exceptional outing from Estrada.