TORONTO — Soft-tossing flyball machine Marco Estrada isn’t a front-of-the-rotation ace on paper, but he’s certainly pitching like one on the mound.
“He’s been as good as anybody,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, after he watched Estrada dominate in a 4-0 Blue Jays win over the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday afternoon. “He’s got that knack of making a big pitch, getting a big out when you have to have it. He’s very composed. You can’t rattle him. And he’s got that equalizing pitch—that changeup.”
That 80-mph changeup with extreme backspin and late movement is Estrada’s bread-and-butter, setting up everything else he does on the mound. Estrada’s not afraid to throw it for strikes because it’s extremely difficult to make solid contact on. And when the pitch is working like it was on Sunday, it makes Estrada’s fastball, which only sits in the 88-90 mph range, that much better.
“[The changeup] is the difference maker for him. He’ll use that at any time. It doesn’t matter. He knows he can throw it around the plate. And he knows as a hitter you’ve got to guard against it, too,” Gibbons said. “So [the fastball] plays a lot harder because the changeup’s in the back of your mind.”
Estrada rode the fastball-changeup combination through eight innings on Sunday, allowing just three hits and nothing more, as he efficiently silenced the Rays lineup in just the kind of game the Blue Jays will need to win if they’re going to start separating in the log-jammed American League East. It was the Blue Jays’ first series victory in the month of July.
While the next two weeks will provide plenty of conjecture and speculation with regards to what, if any, additions the Blue Jays make to their rotation at the trade deadline, Estrada is providing excellent service from within. Coming into the game, he had a 3.89 ERA in 13 starts since joining the Blue Jays rotation in early May, which makes him the club’s most reliable starting arm after Mark Buehrle. He’s given his team at least six innings of work in eight of his last 11 starts, and Sunday was Estrada’s sixth straight start allowing two earned runs or less.
“He’s been awesome. He’s nothing short of spectacular,” said Chris Colabello, who gave the Blue Jays all the runs they would need with a two-run shot in the fifth. “He’s going out there, he’s grinding, he’s chewing up a lot of innings. He’s putting us in good positions to win games.”
Estrada faced the minimum through seven on Sunday, his only two base runners being eliminated by catcher Dioner Navarro, who nabbed James Loney stealing in the second and, in the next inning, picked off Tim Beckham at third base.
“That was huge. You’re out there, you’re battling and you get a guy on third, and he comes out of nowhere and throws a guy out,” Estrada said. “You save a few pitches and mentally it just helps out a bunch. I’m very thankful and grateful for the way he caught back there and what he did behind the plate. It was awesome.”
Estrada was particularly successful when elevating his fastball against the Rays, as he induced 13 outs in the air. Working up in the zone can be a dangerous game at homer-happy Rogers Centre, especially on a hot day with the roof open like Sunday. But Estrada, who led the majors with 29 home runs allowed last season, has proven he can make it work for him. In seven starts at the Rogers Centre he’s allowed just five home runs.
Of course, Estrada also had his swing-and-miss changeup to rely on, which he utilized late in the game when he began to tire and lose his fastball command.
Estrada set down 15 straight Rays before Logan Forsythe served a single into left field with one out in the eighth. As his starter crossed over 100 pitches on a muggy afternoon, Gibbons chose to stay with him and was rewarded for his confidence as Estrada struck out two consecutive Rays to end the inning. The entire team was waiting with high-fives as Estrada returned to the dugout.
“I had the same mindset going—I knew I wanted to finish the inning for sure,” Estrada said. “I just kept thinking keep the ball down and hopefully the guys get themselves out—and it worked out.”
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were finally able to get the best of Rays starter Chris Archer, who has been a thorn in the team’s side all season.
“The big thing today was we beat Archer,” Gibbons said. “He’s been a nemesis of ours. If you’re going to go anywhere, sooner or later you’ve got to beat the good ones.”
Archer’s dominance of the Blue Jays is no joke. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Blue Jays as a team were batting .186/.248/.299 against Archer in their careers, combining for just 36 hits and 14 walks in 208 plate appearances. In his three starts against the Blue Jays this season before Sunday’s game, he’d allowed just 14 Toronto batters to reach base in 25 innings. Toronto had scored only two runs against him across those three outings.
But it took Colabello just one swing to match that output, when he got a 90-mph hanging slider from Archer in the fifth and whacked it into the left-field seats, to put the Blue Jays ahead by two. A batter later Devon Travis walked, and Jose Reyes doubled him to third, and although both those runners would be stranded by a Josh Donaldson flyout, it still represented the most successful inning the Blue Jays have had against Archer this year.
“The goal every day is to go out and do something to help the team win,” Colabello said. “It’s nice to be able to do it. Any way we can get a win is good by me.”