BOSTON – The solace for the Toronto Blue Jays in settling for two of three at Fenway Park is that they kept the Boston Red Sox from celebrating a second straight American League East title in their faces. Even better, they managed to turn up the angst a little bit in always-on-edge Beantown, roughing up Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale in a pair of wins and doing some damage against Rick Porcello in Wednesday’s 10-7 thumping, too.
Still, there’s little silver lining for Marco Estrada to find in his final start of an odd season, getting knocked around for eight runs, seven earned, on nine hits and a walk with two strikeouts in only 2.1 innings. His shortest start of the season comes after allowing three earned runs or less in 10 of his past 12 starts – including five earned runs in his last 27 innings over four outings – and made for a sour end.
The Red Sox grinded him out and in a familiar issue, four of the nine hits he surrendered came against his bread-and-butter change-up, including a Hanley Ramirez solo shot to open the third that hurtled 451 feet over the Green Monster at 108.9 mph. They also collected two hits off both his fastball and cutter and another off a curve, so Estrada didn’t really have any reliable options to turn to.
"It was a weird night, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a game that bad against them," said Estrada. "It was unfortunate. It was the last game for me but the good thing is I’m done. I can rest and relax now. Get my shoulder feeling a little bit better than it does right now. It’s tough to end on a bad note."
Estrada has actually two other starts of 2.1 innings since joining the Blue Jays, both against the Red Sox, also. On Wednesday, a 3-0 lead in the first partially built on Jose Bautista’s first homer since Sept. 8 quickly became a 9-4 deficit in the third, and it was pretty much over from there, Teoscar Hernandez’s sixth homer in six games, a two-run shot in the ninth, making the score look a little more flattering.
"Body feels good, my tempo feels a little bit better," said Bautista, who has hits in each of his past four games. "And I feel like I’ve consistently been putting swings on the pitches I want to swing at. Other than that, nothing too drastic. I’ve squared a couple of balls up and it’s a good feeling to do that."
Estrada’s final stat line for 2017 – 10-9 with a 4.98 ERA over 186 innings, with 103 earned runs allowed on 186 hits and 71 walks with 176 strikeouts – feels representative of the way he pitched. He started the year well, was terrible in June and July and rebounded over the final two months, his workload on the team second only to Marcus Stroman’s 197 frames and counting.
"Overall, I know my numbers aren’t great," said Estrada. "If you take away a month and a half of the year, things went pretty well for me. I struggled bad in June and some of July and it kind of ruined everything numbers-wise, I guess. Obviously I want to pitch better than that. I want to be good the entire year. I’ve done well for these guys. My last two years were really good and this one I just had a tough month and a half. I’ll go back, just get healthy and get ready to go for next year."
Believing his issues were correctable, the Blue Jays signed him to a $13-million, one-year extension last week, a deal similar to one they had proposed earlier, amid his struggles.
Still, for the Blue Jays to rebound in 2018 Estrada will need to be steadier, and restoring the dominance of his change-up will be a key to that.
Over the past three years, his pitch usage has been relatively stable, although his cutter use is down about four per cent and his curve usage down two per cent, with his four-seam fastball (53.52) and change-up (31.91) each up about three per cent.
What’s happened once he unleashes the pitches between 2016 and ’17 is a different story, the batting average/slugging against spiking up from .151/.302 to .237/.462 on the change-up and .217/.338 to .327/.346 on the curveball (all numbers not including Wednesday). The slugging against his four-seamer is also up sharply from .377/.470.
Still, Estrada rightly pointed out that his mid-season rut skewed those numbers, and that once corrected, he performed more along his recent norms.
"I wasn’t making quality pitches, I guess, during that tough stretch. That’s why it spiked," said Estrada. "I figured things out towards the end and pitched much better. I think my change-up was a lot better as the year went on. Today, I threw a really bad one that got away from me and it was hit hard. But other than that, that pitch wasn’t hit that hard the last month, month and a half. I’ll just remember what I did the last few months and take that into next year."
Estrada’s game starts with fastball command but the change-up is the linchpin, giving him the ability to get both quick outs and swing and miss. He still got six swinging strikes and four outs on balls in play with it Wednesday, but when he’s on with it, it’s a far more challenging pitch.
After he signed the extension, Estrada attributed some of his mid-season struggles to a personal matter he was dealing with off the field, and that’s understandable, especially given the subsequent correction. Wednesday may have simply been an off night that capped an uneven year.
"I had other issues going on and once I got rid of those issues, stopped thinking and cleared my head, I performed a lot better," said Estrada. "It’s just unfortunate how bad I pitched in June and July. It kind of ruined everything, but physically I feel good and I’ll get ready for the off-season, train really hard like I always do and be ready for next season."