Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada managing to get erratic season back on track

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada throws against the New York Yankees during the first inning. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO — It’s only four starts. Things could still go sour. Baseball’s a crazy game, an unforgiving game, an unpredictable game. These caveats are necessary because good pitchers have had good runs before only to watch it all fall apart.

But if Marco Estrada’s last four starts are any indication, it appears the right-hander has found a way to pull his erratic season back on the rails. That’s a promising turn of events, not only for Estrada, who will be a free agent in a few months, but for the Toronto Blue Jays, who have expressed interest in bringing him back for the 2018 season.

And if that happens, the Blue Jays will be banking on returning the Estrada they saw Thursday night versus the New York Yankees — the one who threw a seven-inning shutout in a 4-0 victory.

“I don’t think he could have done any better tonight,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “It’s like he’s found that groove again. It doesn’t matter what he’s throwing, he’s locating it. They’re not picking up the change-up. I don’t think he could be any better.”

Estrada’s 2017 has been a motley one. He was brilliant through his first six outings and, despite a couple mid-May blips, still finished the season’s first third with a 3.15 ERA over 11 starts.

But June was an utter disaster as the 34-year-old pitched to a 9.11 ERA over a half dozen outings, allowing his opposition to bat .353/.432/.613. His first three starts of July followed a similar theme, as Estrada continued to struggle and eroded any value he had going into the trade deadline. His difficulty on the mound is perhaps the sole reason he’s still pitching in Toronto today.

But since hitting his nadir with a 5.52 ERA following a five-run outing in Cleveland, Estrada has looked a lot like his old self. He was effective against Oakland on July 26, allowing only two runs over five innings, before stringing together a pair of terrific seven-inning starts against the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros. He’s been locating better, inducing weak contact, and limiting hits and walks much like he did in his best outings as a Blue Jay.

“I’ve been feeling good for a little while now — since the game against Oakland,” Estrada said. “I’ve changed my mechanics a little bit and things are kind of working out now. I feel pretty good. I feel like I’m getting pretty good downhill plane when I’m throwing fastballs and change-ups. I’m able to elevate a lot. It’s kind of all just going back to how I was pitching before that rough month-and-a-half.

“I was struggling with mechanics. I was kind of rushing out there. It took me a long time to figure it out. Mentally, physically, haven’t quite been there. But the last few outings have gone really well. I’ve tweaked a few things. So, I’m throwing the ball a little bit better now.”

Thursday night was no exception, as Estrada cruised through seven shutout innings, scattering five hits and three walks as he repeatedly pitched his way out of minor jams.

There was a two-on, two-out predicament in the first, which Estrada powered out of by getting Gary Sanchez to chase a full-count, 90-m.p.h. fastball off the plate. There were a couple two-out doubles in the second and third, each swiftly eliminated by a fly ball out. And there was a sticky situation in the fifth, when Estrada allowed the first two batters to reach on a single and a walk.

Estrada appeared to be losing the zone early on in that fifth inning. But he made the necessary adjustments by finding his way back to the edges of the plate and mowing down the next three batters he faced, including Aaron Judge, who looked at a perfectly-located change-up on the outside black for an inning-ending strikeout.

“I’ve seen him do that over and over and over again. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at doing that,” Gibbons said. “He’s got that knack. Whatever it is. He can pull out a big pitch.”

That’s how things went for Estrada, who again put two runners on early in the sixth and again worked his way out of it with soft contact outs, running New York’s left on base total up to eight. The seventh was a breeze, as Estrada nullified his final three batters and walked off the mound with a third consecutive seven-inning performance.

Interestingly, Estrada has backed off of his curveball and cutter in recent outings, relying more on his two best pitches — his fastball and change-up — to navigate lineups. He used his curve a bit more Thursday, throwing it 14 times against the Yankees, but again was mostly mixing and matching with his heater and change-up, which earned him five swinging strikes on the night.

“I was locating the fastball early on and got some decent change-ups in there. Kind of mixed everything up today,” Estrada said. “Russ (Martin) called a really good game. Called a few cutters and a few curveballs, something we haven’t really done the last two outings before today. So, it felt good. We had a good mixture going.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays offence did what it needed to against Sonny Gray, taking advantage of some rare spotty command from the right-hander to put runners on in each of the first five innings and cash a few along the way.

The Blue Jays first run was a thrilling one, as Ezequiel Carrera — who earlier doubled and moved to third on a botched pick off attempt at second — sprinted home on a Ryan Goins nubber that barely dribbled beyond the home plate cutout in the second inning. Gray made a terrific effort to nab Carrera, scooping the ball to catcher Gary Sanchez on the run. But Carrera slid headfirst into home, sneaking his hand onto the plate just before Sanchez could apply his tag.

A second run came in the third, as Jose Bautista walked, took second on a wild pitch, and scored on Josh Donaldson’s two-out, two-strike single to left. And another in the fourth, when Kevin Pillar singled home Steve Pearce with a fine piece of hitting on a well-located Gray curveball.

Bautista added one more in the seventh with Gray out of the game, driving his 19th homer of the year over the left-field wall off Chasen Shreve.

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