MIAMI – As the Toronto Blue Jays were busy trading away Josh Donaldson and Curtis Granderson, two of the 10 remaining players from the 2015 American League East champion edition of the club were front and centre in a 6-5 win over the Miami Marlins.
Aaron Sanchez, making his second start since returning from the disabled list due to a right index finger contusion, allowed five runs on eight hits and three walks in 4.1 innings of work, while Justin Smoak’s pinch-hit grand slam in the ninth helped end a four-game losing streak.
“It sucks,” Sanchez said of watching the roster’s continued transition. “Obviously it tells us we’re in a little bit of a rebuild mode here, I guess you can say, and it’s going to be something you can adjust to in terms of not having the regular guys you went to battle with year after year.
“The team is a lot younger than it’s been in the past few years. It’s just about getting these guys at-bats, the new guys that are coming up, getting them comfortable here and hopefully in a few years the guys that are still here from those playoffs from ’15 or ’16 will be that anchor to relay to these guys what it takes.”
Along with Sanchez and Smoak, only Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Ryan Tepera and Dalton Pompey still remain in the organization from the 2015 team. The same 10 players plus two others – relievers Joe Biagni and Danny Barnes – remain from the 2016 wild-card winning club that also went to the American League Championship Series.
SANCHEZ’S START: Statistically, Aaron Sanchez’s outing Friday looked very similar to his first start back from the disabled list against the Philadelphia Phillies, when he gave up six runs on 10 hits and two walks in four innings of work.
But he sensed a real difference.
“I thought I was a lot better than I was last start,” Sanchez said afterwards. “I thought my curveball was good, fastball had good life. I could have thrown more strikes, I could have gotten ahead more, that’s for sure, but it was definitely a step in the right direction.”
Sanchez was strong through the first three innings before running into trouble in the fourth inning, when he surrendered a three-spot. He gave up another run in the fifth before manager John Gibbons came to get him with two runners on.
“I felt like I was underneath a lot of my fastballs, they didn’t have the same action in terms of the sink I wanted,” said Sanchez. “It was more left and right but I think that’s going to come the longer I’m out there.”
To some degree in this salvage-mode finish to the season for Sanchez, the simple act of getting reps is an end as much as it is a mean, especially given how much of a challenge even that’s been over the past two years. Sanchez is up to 88 innings on the season now, and even when combined with last year’s total of 136, he’s still going to finish well short of his regular season total of 192 from 2016, when he was the American League’s ERA champion.
What will make for a good finish to the year in eyes?
“I’m angry that I’m not having success out there with the stuff I’m doing, but I’m definitely progressing the way I like,” said Sanchez. “I threw a lot more curveballs, the shape’s better. Even the ones they did get hits on I thought were in a good spot, it was everything I was trying to do, just out in front. I don’t think there’s anything in particular, it’s just being able to take the ball every five days and that will take care of itself the more and more I go out there. As long as I can go out there every five days, I’ve accomplished what I want to do.”
SMOAK IN A PINCH: In 66 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter prior to stepping into the batter’s box for Joe Biagini on Friday night, Justin Smoak had never hit a home run. And when Drew Steckenrider quickly jumped out in front 0-2, the slugging first baseman’s chances of changing that didn’t seem good.
“I feel like I don’t get too many hits when I pinch hit,” he said.
That changed when Steckenrider threw him a 94.5 m.p.h. centre-cut heater just above the zone that Smoak pummeled over the right-field wall. Had a borderline second strike in a similar spot not been called strike two, Smoak might not have swung at it.
“I saw a pitch up, the pitch before I thought was a little up so I took a rip at it and I was able to get it out of there,” he explained. “I had no clue who (Steckenrider) was, I’d never faced him before, so first-pitch I was dead red on a heater and he threw me a good slider, swing through it. He got the called strike up to make it 0-2 and honestly, I was just trying to battle there and put a good swing on it.”
Smoak is now 13-for-57 with nine walks and a hit-by-pitch as a pinch-hitter, including his one memorable home run.
“It’s awesome man,” he said. “In that situation, being down the whole game, get a few guys on in the ninth, to be able to come up big for the team right there, that’s what it’s all about.”
SEPTEMBER HELP: The first wave of September call-ups begin arriving Saturday when Sean Reid-Foley (who gets the start in Sunday’s series finale), left-hander Jose Fernandez and right-hander Taylor Guerrieri come up from triple-A Buffalo.
Two other relievers – Jake Petricka and Justin Shafer – will rejoin the Blue Jays after the Bisons season ends Monday, the earliest they can come up because they haven’t been down on option for at least 10 days yet.
Outfielder Dwight Smith Jr., is another candidate for promotion.