Aaron Sanchez ‘very encouraged’ by pain-free bullpen session

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez talks about recovering from a split nail.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – About 18 pitches into his bullpen session Sunday, Aaron Sanchez decided it was time to test out the pitch that creates the most stress on his pitching hand. With manager John Gibbons, pitching coach Pete Walker and bullpen coach Dane Johnson watching intently, Sanchez started snapping off his curve.

The results were good: no blood, no broken nails, no pain. Soon after completing the 33-pitch bullpen session, the right-hander sounded optimistic about his next steps.

“Very encouraged,” Sanchez said. “I was pleased with it. Definitely moving in the right direction. It makes me happy moving forward.”

“Best his stuff has been in a while,” Walker said. “Really encouraged.”

Sanchez’s right middle finger continues healing slowly but surely, and he expects to pitch in an extended spring training game Tuesday. If all goes well, that outing would set up a potential return to the Toronto Blue Jays rotation as soon as next weekend.

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A week ago, Sanchez hit the disabled list for the second time this year because the nail of his right middle finger cracked during a start against the Tampa Bay Rays. Part of that nail had been removed April 18 in an attempt to limit blister issues that the 24-year-old has dealt with dating back to last year.

The thinking: some patience now will allow Sanchez to return at full strength.

“If it takes 20 days to heal up, and I’d be clear the rest of the year and the rest of my career, in the big picture of things, it doesn’t really seem that big,” Sanchez said. “Yeah, it kind of sucks now, but hopefully this is the end of it.”

The blister issues that initially sent Sanchez to the disabled list have now dissipated, and his finger continues healing gradually. As for the nail that cracked last weekend, Sanchez has since shaved it down as much as possible.

Though the skin underneath is sensitive, shaving the nail back has allowed him to finish his pitches the way he needs to. There were times earlier in the season that he’d be a little hesitant at the end of his delivery, unsure how his finger would respond. In recent days, his finger has improved further.

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“For it to just have time and take the time we need, I think that’s what helped it the most,” Sanchez said.

Tuesday’s extended spring training game should provide the right balance of excitement and control. On the one hand, there are real opposing hitters standing in, leading to some adrenaline.

“You get an umpire in there, you get someone with a different jersey on, it just takes you back to game-like situations,” Sanchez said.

On the other hand, Sanchez can throw extra pitches if needed without worrying about the structure imposed by more formal game environments. A successful Tuesday session would make Sanchez an option for the Blue Jays’ upcoming series against the Seattle Mariners.

Considering the trouble the Blue Jays have had replacing Sanchez and J.A. Happ in the rotation, they could certainly use the defending AL ERA leader. And after three weeks of finger-related treatment, count Sanchez among those eagerly awaiting the end of his time on the sidelines.

“It’s awful,” he said. “You come to the park and you feel like you can’t contribute. I’m high-energy on the bench, trying to get these guys going as much as I can, but it’s just one of those things, man. You take it with a grain of salt and move on.”

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