TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays set a guideline for Marco Estrada Tuesday night. He’d throw 70-to-75 pitches and that would be it. If he was working especially well he could stretch into the 80s, but certainly not any further. Pitching out of the bullpen all season, he simply wasn’t stretched out.
But when Estrada got Alex Rodriguez to ground out with his 78th pitch of the night, making the second out in the fifth inning, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons left him in. And why not? Estrada hadn’t been spectacular, but he had retired eight of his last ten, and the bullpen could certainly use the rest.
Alas, Estrada would throw only one more pitch.
Mark Teixeira sent that 90-mph fastball more than 400 feet to left-centre field for a two-run shot, his tenth home run of the season and all the Yankees would need in a 6-3 defeat of the Blue Jays.
Looking back on the mistake pitch, Estrada knew exactly what went wrong. He’d thrown Teixeira six fastballs away in earlier at-bats and as soon as he released he could see the Yankees first baseman stepping in, anticipating the pitch. He also missed his location slightly, leaving the pitch on the plate instead of on the outside edge or out of the strike zone as the previous six had been, which created a perfect confluence of events for Teixiera to go deep.
“When he’s seen that many fastballs away, I don’t blame him for sitting on it. That’s what good hitters do. I should’ve known better and I should’ve made my pitch better,” Estrada said. “He hit it really well. But maybe if I make my pitch there, he rolls over. I just needed it to be a few more inches away and I think he would have rolled over.”
Estrada also admitted he was fatigued in that fifth inning, and wasn’t throwing as well as he was earlier in the game. Making a spot start in the position vacated by the struggling and demoted Daniel Norris, Estrada threw his longest outing of the season by far.
After he’d thrown 68 pitches through four innings, Gibbons asked Estrada if he wanted to go back out for the fifth. Estrada told his manager he did.
“I wanted it. I wanted to get to at least 75 pitches. That’s the only way I’m going to build up my pitch count; to go out there and make pitches,” Estrada said. “I made a mistake to Teixiera and he hit it. But other than that I felt pretty good. I can’t wait for my pitch count to go up so I can give the guys more innings.”
Estrada was evidently left in one pitch too long. But he otherwise had a fine night, in between the first three batters he faced and the very last.
He began his start by allowing a single to Jacoby Ellsbury and a double to Brett Gardner, who grinded out a marathon 11-pitch at-bat. Then Rodriguez took the second pitch he saw down the left-field line to plate both runners.
Estrada settled in after that and made it through the evening mostly unscathed until Teixeira’s homer in the fifth, which forced him from the game having allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits while striking out three.
After his start Estrada went back to the video room and watched his pitches from that rough first inning. He didn’t see anything he was unhappy with, other than the results.
“I thought I threw the ball well, to be honest with you. I know the outcome doesn’t look like it, but I felt good, especially in the first four innings,” Estrada said. “The first three guys in the first inning, they were all out in front on pitches. They just found the holes. You can’t do anything about that.”
Or maybe you can.
Estrada’s been quietly developing a cutter during bullpen sessions that he thinks will give him an added weapon as a starter. He started working on it during spring training but shelved it when he sprained his ankle in March. He came back to it during bullpen sessions in Toronto and says he’s close to using it against live hitters.
“It’s close. It’s really close. It’s a feel pitch, and I’m not 100 percent on it yet. I don’t want it to come down to blowing a game. But if I feel comfortable throwing it and there’s conviction behind it, I’m going to use it,” Estrada said. “It’s a good pitch. It’ll keep hitters honest.”
The sooner it comes the better for Estrada who’s finding himself in jams during games where he wishes he had the fourth pitch in his arsenal.
Such a situation arose in the first inning Tuesday night, when Gardner worked that 11-pitch at-bat, fouling off repeated fastballs and changeups before hitting a double on a full-count curveball.
“That would’ve been a perfect scenario to use the cutter,” Estrada said. “You show him fastball down-and-away, changeup down-and-away, and then you throw that cutter in. That could’ve worked really well. It could be a huge pitch. I’m excited for it. I want to see what it can do against hitters.”
Estrada last featured his cutter in 2011 (with an average velocity of 89 mph), but threw it only 70 times, representing just four percent of his pitches thrown that season. Opponents batted .353 against it, which may be one reason why Estrada hasn’t used it since.
But he’s been playing around with the grip during his bullpen sessions and thinks he’s improved on it. He feels it’ll be ready to use against live hitters by his next outing or the one after that at the very latest. Estrada says he’ll use it around the strike zone, throwing it down and away from right-handed batters and up and in to left-handed batters.
“It’s a good pitch. I like the way it’s coming out right now,” Estrada said. “But the only way I’ll really know if it works is once I throw it to a hitter. He’ll tell me how it’s working.”