OAKLAND – In some ways, the Blue Jays will return to Toronto in far better shape than they left. They’re hitting as well as they have all season and after a 6-1 road trip, they’re now within a game of .500.
Yet injuries in the starting rotation undermined an otherwise successful week by creating some tough questions for manager Charlie Montoyo.
When Matt Shoemaker tore his ACL in a rundown Saturday, the Blue Jays lost one reliable starter for the season. They’re hopeful that Aaron Sanchez won’t require a stint on the injured list, but he broke the middle fingernail of his pitching hand in Sunday’s 5-4 win.
"We got him out before it got really bad," manager Charlie Montoyo said after the Blue Jays’ completed a sweep of the Athletics. "He should be okay for his next start."
Sanchez initially cracked his nail in his previous start against the Twins. Facing the Athletics Sunday, it started bleeding so he exited after just 59 pitches and four innings.
"We’re only four starts in," he said. "It doesn’t make sense to try to push something that could push me back more. As frustrating as it was to not go out there and compete, I guess that’s the right move."
Any time Sanchez’s fingers cause problems, there’s reason for some concern. He had four separate stints on the injured list in 2017 only to battle a new set of issues last year, when he damaged his finger handling a suitcase and later required surgery on the UCL of his index finger.
On paper, Sanchez’s next start is Saturday against the Athletics. At this point, Sanchez expects to make it.
"We’ve got to see how it is the next few days," Sanchez said. "That’s definitely where my mind’s at and where my head’s at as far as what the outlook is, but I guess only time can tell on stuff like this."
Off days on Monday and Thursday provide the Blue Jays with some welcome breathing room as they assess their options for next weekend. In the meantime, Trent Thornton, Clay Buchholz and Marcus Stroman will start for the Blue Jays.
At the very least, they’ll have to replace Shoemaker with no starter scheduled next Sunday. They could start Sam Gaviglio, who pitched four strong innings Saturday, turn to Thomas Pannone despite his effectiveness in relief, or promote a triple-A starter such as Sean Reid-Foley or Jacob Waguespack.
In theory, the club could even use an opener. The Blue Jays are off three of the next eight days, so their bullpen should be more rested than usual for the next week or so.
Regardless, these injuries put additional strain on a starting staff that has already lost Clayton Richard and Ryan Borucki to injury. Adding to Montoyo’s list of questions, shortstop Freddy Galvis left the game in the ninth after his left leg stiffened up.
Moments after replacing Galvis, Richard Urena raced into shallow centre to record the final out of the game. That one play made a long day worthwhile for Urena, who woke up at 4 a.m. ET to fly from Buffalo to Oakland for one day.
A four-hit day for Justin Smoak supplied the Blue Jays with much of the offence they’d need. His seventh-inning homer was the 100th of his Blue Jays career–a significant contribution for a player initially acquired on waivers in 2014.
"This’ll be my fifth year here," Smoak said. "So to be able to do it early in the season is a pretty good feat, I guess."
The Blue Jays scored their first runs of the game with a little small ball. With runners on first and second, Montoyo called for a sacrifice from Billy McKinney, who obliged with a well-placed bunt. Objectively, the move marginally lowered the Blue Jays’ run expectancy, but Alen Hanson justified his manager’s move by delivering an RBI single.
Whether you like bunting or not, those decisions are tiny in scope compared to the pitching questions now facing this team. Big picture, the Blue Jays are in a challenging spot, even as they extend their season-best win streak to four games. The loss of Shoemaker looms large for a team whose recent success stems in large part from its pitching staff.
“It’s next man up,” Sanchez said. “We’ll see who’s ready to come up and take that role. Those will be some big shoes to fill, of course, but we know in spring training it’s not only 25 who are going to be the ones who grind it out all year. We’ve got 40 men.”