DUNEDIN, Fla. — The last time Aaron Sanchez was on a mound, during Game 4 of the ALCS at Rogers Centre last October, there were 50,000 delirious fans hanging onto his every pitch, and the result of the game meant the difference between his team going home or living to fight another day.
Saturday afternoon at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium—with 5,000 March-breakers looking on and the result of the game so meaningless it doesn’t even warrant mention—didn’t exactly recreate that atmosphere. But for Sanchez, finally getting back on big-league rubber after nearly five months off was satisfying enough. Especially considering the way he threw the ball.
“What I was trying to get at today was just making sure I felt good. Making sure stuff was coming out of my hand well. And I feel like I accomplished that,” Sanchez said. “I feel like I’m repeating my delivery well with my off-speed and my heater.
“For the most part, everything was exactly where I wanted it and what I wanted to do. So, I’m very pleased with that.”
Sanchez got up to 31 pitches (19 strikes) over 1.2 innings of work Saturday. He leaned heavily on his fastball, as he does, but also mixed in a series of good curveballs during his first inning and the occasional change-up. Sanchez was especially happy with the breaking pitches he threw and said he had strong command of his two-seamer, which sat at an easy 96-97 mph.
Results wise, Sanchez got two outs with his first four pitches, both harmless fly balls. But he walked the next batter and then gave up a couple very hard-hit balls, one a double and the other a single as two runs scored. Phillies leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez then scorched a comebacker to the mound that Sanchez was able to knock down with his glove. He calmly flipped the ball to first for the third out of the inning.
He then began his second frame with an impressive four-pitch strikeout of Freddy Galvis before putting together his best sequence of the afternoon against Brock Stassi. Sanchez started the Phillies left-fielder with a terrific curveball for a strike and then followed it with a change-up that Stassi watched for strike two. Sanchez should have had a called third strike a pitch later as he picked a corner with a 96-mph two-seamer but didn’t get the call. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia even had to re-cock his arm after he’d come out of his crouch to throw the ball around the bases.
But Sanchez came back with two more fastballs and got Stassi to ground out to first. Pitching backwards like that is not something Blue Jays fans are accustomed to seeing from Sanchez, who used his fastball nearly 75 per cent of the time in 2016 and often looked to aggressively establish it early in at-bats. But if Sanchez can flip a first-pitch curveball into the zone for a strike now and again like he did on Saturday, he’ll only make himself a tougher at-bat.
“You’ll see that probably a lot more this year than you’ve seen it in the past,” Sanchez said. “Just because there’s been a year of starting under my belt and teams probably know I’m aggressive with the heater and I try to come after you. So, if I can get somebody off my heater in those counts and steal a strike—it’s always better being 0-1 than 1-0.”
Sanchez also used the outing as an opportunity to continue refining his change-up, a pitch he’s been diligently working on and will likely throw more this year than the nine per cent of the time he used it last season.
“It’s going to turn into a big weapon for him because they’ve really got to gear it up for his fastball,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “If he masters that change-up a little bit, it’s just one more thing. It could turn into a big, big pitch for him.”
Estrada takes another step
Before Sanchez made his debut, Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada made his second appearance of the spring, pitching 2.1 innings before bumping up against his 45-pitch limit.
Estrada worked around a walk in a 20-pitch first inning and was dialed in during his second, getting three softly-hit fly ball outs. He got another lazy pop fly to open the third, but gave up back-to-back well-struck doubles to the subsequent two batters before being lifted from the game. He threw 42 pitches, 28 for strikes.
But more importantly than all that, Estrada said he felt great physically on the mound and that he was actually caught off guard with how high his velocity was. The 33-year-old isn’t known for his heat but was throwing his fastball consistently at 89 mph Saturday, which is generally where it sits mid-season, not early in spring.
“I’m actually surprised with the way my body’s feeling out there,” said Estrada, who battled a back injury for much of 2016. “My fastball had a lot of life on it.”
The fastball was Estrada’s best pitch on the afternoon and he went to it over and over again, trying to hone in on his location. Estrada knows he’s ready for the season when he can locate the fastball down and away to right-handed hitters, and he says he’s close to being able to hit that spot consistently.
“That’s one of the hardest pitches to make. And the way mine came out today was encouraging. I was getting it out there,” Estrada said. “If I was missing, it was more up and down than left and right. So, I’m pretty excited about that.”
Estrada wasn’t quite as delighted with his secondary pitches on the day, offering the caveat that it’s still early in his pre-season process. He had difficulty locating his curveball for strikes and says he hasn’t yet found the feel for his change-up, which is his best pitch.
Estrada knows how to make the adjustment he needs to with his curveball, simply raising his eye level and moving the pitch up from just beneath the zone to the bottom half. And the change-up, which is the ultimate feel pitch, merely takes time.
“That’s the one thing I need to throw more of,” Estrada said. “It’s just not there yet. Which is fine. I still had swings and misses. But it’s not where I want it to be.
“Still, I can’t expect it to be in mid-season form right now. I’m starting to feel better with them. The more I get out there, the more comfortable I’ll be.”