Blue Jays notebook: Estrada happy with cutter in spring start

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada stretches on the mound. (Frank Gunn/CP)

CLEARWATER, Fla. — When you throw a change-up as often, and as well, as Marco Estrada does, it’s easy to forget he has a curveball and a cutter, too. Estrada’s change-up is his best weapon, no doubt. But you can’t be a successful starter in the big-leagues with only two pitches. You need to let hitters know you can show them something else.

And so, when Estrada took the mound for his second spring outing Sunday, he did so hoping to work on his secondary stuff, particularly that cutter. It’s a pitch Estrada’s been toying with for a couple seasons now. It’s a little slower than his fastball, averaging only 87 m.p.h. But Estrada throws it with much more English, generating life that moves down and away from a right-handed batter, which is the side of the platoon he’ll use it most often against.

“I did throw a lot of cutters and those felt really good today,” Estrada said, after pitching three scoreless innings in a 4-2 Blue Jays loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. “It had a lot of movement — downward movement. I had a few swing-and-misses on it. So, I’m excited about it.”

Estrada’s run hot and cold with the pitch over the last couple seasons, using it more often when it’s working for him and backing off when it isn’t. He’s predominantly a fly-ball pitcher, but Estrada was able to generate a ground ball with the cutter 38 per cent of the time he threw it in 2017, and 43 per cent in 2016. If he can keep that up, it can be a useful weapon, especially when batters are dialed in on his four-seam fastball.

“It actually feels better than it has, to be honest with you,” Estrada said of the cutter. “It’s not really a right-to-left type thing, it’s more of a down-and-to-the-left thing. It’s good for righties. Maybe I’ll get a few more ground balls out of that. I’m not expecting a swing-and-miss, but if they happen it’s great.”

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Estrada also worked on his curveball during the 40-pitch (26 strikes) outing. He only threw it a few times, but Estrada said he liked how it was coming out of his hand, and even flipped one in first-pitch for a strike.

Of course, Estrada’s pitch usage in-season will mostly depend on what Russell Martin and Luke Maile call for him. The 34-year-old is famous for never going over a scouting report, rarely throwing bullpens, and almost exclusively accepting whatever pitch his catcher calls.

“I think catchers know that with me,” Estrada said. “Whatever they feel is working that day, that’s what they’ll call. And that’s how I’d like to keep it.”

Garcia debuts

Left-hander Jaime Garcia made his Blue Jays debut behind Estrada Sunday, allowing two runs on two hits in an inning of work. Garcia threw 15 pitches (12 strikes), mostly working on getting a feel for his four-seamer, two-seamer and cutter. The 31-year-old features a change-up, curveball, and slider, as well. But he simply didn’t have enough time to get to them Sunday, using only one slider with the final pitch he threw.

“My goal today was just to get a feel of things,” he said. “I wanted to get the first one out of the way, especially coming out of the bullpen. Just get the feel of the mound. The feel of facing live hitters. Overall, I feel good. I feel really good with where I’m at right now. We’re kind of taking our time. But I’ll be ready to go for my first start.”

Garcia is scheduled to start for the Blue Jays on Saturday, March 10, and extend to three innings as he continues building towards the season. Although he got a late start to spring, signing with the Blue Jays after camp began, Garcia says he’s right where he wants to be in his pre-season schedule.

“I actually feel really confident with where I’m at right now,” he said. “The pitching coaches and the training staff have been amazing here. They have a good program for me going. My body feels great. I feel great where I’m at right now.”

Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna also pitched Sunday, throwing an inning of scoreless relief behind Garcia. Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said this week that Osuna, who bulked up over the winter, looks as good as he’s seen him this spring.

“He’s still a pup but you watch him out there and he looks like a real seasoned veteran,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of the 23-year-old. “He’s got such a great feel of pitching. It doesn’t matter what he’s throwing. He had a few ups and downs last year, but he’s as good as any of them out there.”

Tulowitzki likely to miss opening day

Sunday morning, Gibbons confirmed what many have speculated regarding Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki — he likely won’t be with the Blue Jays on opening day.

“I don’t expect he’ll be ready,” Gibbons said. “But he’s moving in the right direction.”

Tulowitzki has been limited to taking ground balls and batting practice so far this spring, as he battles a chronic bone spur in his right heel. Tulowitzki aggravated the bone spur while rehabbing an ankle injury that ended his 2017 season in July.

Even if he’s able to get back into games some time in the near future, Tulowitzki is simply running out of time. There are only three and a half weeks remaining until opening day, and the Blue Jays will want to ensure the 33-year-old has as much time as possible to prepare and ramp up for the season.

Pearce exits with injury

Blue Jays outfielder Steve Pearce was lifted from the game prior to the third inning Sunday, after experiencing cramping in his left calf during warmups. The Blue Jays say he’s day-to-day with left calf tightness.

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