DUNEDIN, Fla. – The challenge during spring training, when the only current sample of work available is from games of the least credible variety, is to properly identify trends and performances that actually matter from those that don’t. Many a player has served notice in the Grapefruit or Cactus Leagues only to flop in the big-leagues, while plenty have caused alarm with poor camps before crushing the season.
Where the Monday night outings of Aaron Sanchez, who popped a blister during his 3.1 innings of work, and Roberto Osuna, who gave up a two-run homer in his return to the mound from a bout of neck/back stiffness, stand in that regard is an interesting and important matter for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sanchez developed a blister on his right middle finger during a truncated start against the Boston Red Sox last September, skipped an outing to help it heal and then returned for a boss finish to 2016. In Monday’s 7-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, he allowed five runs, four earned, on five hits and three walks in 3.1 innings, apparently developing the blister at some point during the third or fourth, which he left with the bases loaded.
Whether it was on the same finger as last year wasn’t clear, he didn’t mention the blister during his conversation with media, and what’s next is uncertain. Sanchez was due to make one more minor-league start, perhaps in the 70-80 pitch range, before his regular-season debut next week against the Tampa Bay Rays.
"I think it really affected him," manager John Gibbons said afterwards. "Hopefully, that’s not a big deal. I do know it was very tender."
Sanchez was due to throw no more than 75 pitches Monday and was yanked at 71, so at minimum he managed to get his work in. Pitching coach Pete Walker said the Blue Jays would have given him another batter to try and get a double-play grounder, but with the blister, "we decided to get him out of the ballgame."
As for next steps, Walker suggested the blister was a matter of course and would resolve in short order: "It will callous up and go away."
The Blue Jays are certainly counting on that.
Similarly, they are trusting that Osuna, who hadn’t pitched since an appearance in a minor-league game a week and a half ago and last faced big-league hitters March 12 with Mexico at the World Baseball Classic, will be ready to go in a week’s time.
The 22-year-old topped out at 94 mph on his fastball against the Phillies and nearly emerged from his outing unscathed. But Josh Donaldson didn’t cleanly field Howie Kendrick’s smash to third for an error, and Tommy Joseph followed with a branch-breaking rocket into the trees beyond the left-field fence on a 94-mph two-seamer. Cameron Rupp followed with a liner off the wall that went for a long single before Aaron Altherr struck out to end the inning.
"His stuff was good, I don’t think it’s up to the quality that we’re used to seeing yet," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "The fastball velocity was 93-94, he threw a couple of good cutters, a couple of good sliders. He’s probably a couple of clicks off right now but there’s just enough time left in spring training to get him where he needs to be."
The Joseph homer came on a two-seam fastball, an offering catcher Russell Martin says Osuna (who was unavailable to speak) told him earlier this spring that he wants to work on, and one they focused on against the Phillies.
"His bread and butter is his four-seamer, command and locating pitches," said Martin. "Down and away is what we’ve done a lot in the past, but he’s been wanting to work on attacking hitters a little bit differently and it’s fine, I have no problem with it. More than the result in the spring, you look at what the action on the pitches is doing."
Given the relative inaction, was he rusty?
"It was coming out good. I’m really confident in Osuna," Martin replied. "Obviously you’d like to see your closer punch out the side. He didn’t do it. But the ball is coming out nice, the sharpness on his slider, he came in, didn’t really look like he was fazed, so I’m not worried about his mental state."
Gibbons said the plan is for Osuna to likely pitch again during the Blue Jays’ Grapefruit League finale Wednesday and again during one of the two games in Montreal. There likely won’t be an opportunity to get him work in back-to-back games, unless they decide to push things at Olympic Stadium.
"I don’t think he needs that," said Gibbons. "It’s ideal. We did it the last couple days with other guys, but if we can’t, we can’t."
So the Blue Jays are left to hope that Osuna can catch up from a stop-and-start spring over the next week and that Sanchez’s blister will callous over before he’s due to start April 8 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Sure, sometimes there is meaning in springtime stat lines, but only if you know the whole story.
Notes: Russell Martin hit his first home run of the spring, a smash to right-centre field off Vince Velasquez. "I’ve been taking some better swings. Timing-wise, I feel like I’ve been taking better passes at the ball, I’m not really getting as many good results as I want, but I feel like I’m starting to see the ball pretty well," said Martin. "I definitely don’t like striking out that much, I’m going to try to limit that, when you put the ball in play you’ve got a better chance of getting hits. But I feel like I have a good plan going into the season, I feel good about my two-strike approach, choking up, staying short, trying to see the ball, so overall I feel pretty good." … The Blue Jays hosted their first night game at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium since 2009 and it didn’t go well. The light banks in left-centre field didn’t turn on until the fourth inning and players from both teams struggled to pick up the ball in the dark.