Blue Jays notebook: Estrada unleashes change-up against Orioles

Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada is more than happy with his progression so far in 2018, and thinks the rotation could be better than the 2016 version that led them to the playoffs.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Marco Estrada’s goals for his third outing of spring Friday were simple.

First, get to 55 pitches. He did that, throwing exactly 55, with 37 strikes.

Next, build up his stamina. That box was checked, as Estrada felt like he could’ve easily kept pitching when he came out after the fourth.

Finally, throw a lot of change-ups. And that’s exactly what happened, as Estrada backed away from his curveball and cutter, using his change-up all day, often tying them together consecutively, as he threw four innings of one-run ball, allowing four hits while striking out a pair.

“I love the way everything was coming out,” Estrada said after the Blue Jays beat the Baltimore Orioles, 8-5. “I feel good out there with it. We even called one 3-2, which is awesome. And I threw it exactly where I wanted it. That’s exactly where I need to be.”

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Estrada has been quietly going about his business this spring, slowly and deliberately building up his arm strength as he looks to bounce back from a rough 2017 that saw him finish with a 4.98 ERA over 33 starts. He’s spent much of his time addressing issues with his change-up mechanics, which he believes was leading him to telegraph his best pitch.

“I think my delivery’s right on point right now,” Estrada said. “The biggest thing for me is just drifting forward. I’ve just got to make sure I stay back. Especially out of the windup, because there’s a lot more movement. But I feel like I’m right over the rubber, I’m staying back when I need to, and pitches are coming out good.”

Of course, no matter how well or poorly Estrada’s pitching, he’s always had success against Friday’s opponent. Estrada owns a 3.22 career ERA over 81 innings pitched against Baltimore, holding Orioles hitters to a 203/.278/.360 line.

“He always pitches well against Baltimore, I don’t care what their lineup looks like,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “He had everything working. Typical.”

An opening day preview?

The Blue Jays offered a glimpse of what their opening day lineup may look like Friday, assuming everyone makes it to the end of spring unscathed.

The Blue Jays will likely face one of Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka, both right-handers, when they host the New York Yankees on opening day. And it appears new Blue Jays outfielder and former Yankee Curtis Granderson could be the first batter to step in against whoever gets the nod.

Granderson has been leading off frequently this spring. To this point, Gibbons has indicated that’s more about getting the 36-year-old as many plate appearances as possible, rather than a look at how things may line up during the season. But Friday, the Blue Jays manager admitted Granderson could see time atop the order, particularly against right-handed pitching.

“It’s always a possibility,” Gibbons said. “He’s done that a lot in his career. We’ve been looking for that leadoff guy and somebody like that. We’ve also got Devon [Travis.] We’ve got some options.”

Travis is the likely candidate to lead off against left-handed pitchers, as Steve Pearce is expected to see the majority of at-bats against southpaws in a left-field platoon with Granderson.

The Blue Jays will likely use third baseman Josh Donaldson as the everyday hitter at No. 3 in the batting order this year, after he primarily hit second the last couple seasons. The run of Justin Smoak, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales that followed Donaldson Friday is likely to be a frequent combination used during the regular season, as well.

At the bottom of the order, the Blue Jays could feature various looks, as Gibbons mixes up his middle infielders depending on defence, hot streaks and matchups. It will also be interesting to see who joins Travis atop the order against left-handed pitching.

“There’s some spots there that you could have some interchangeable parts,” Gibbons said. “But the core and the middle, I think it’s better when you leave it be.”

Clippard starts strong

Tyler Clippard made his Blue Jays debut Friday, pitching a perfect eighth inning. The 33-year-old veteran got his first batter to pop up to short before striking out the next two, needing only 11 pitches (nine strikes) to retire the side.

“He’s got a tremendous change-up and he showed that today,” Gibbons said. “For his first outing with us, I thought he looked very good.”

Closer Roberto Osuna also pitched a scoreless frame, allowing a single and striking out one in his third appearance this spring.

Stroman resumes throwing

Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman played catch both Thursday and Friday, reporting no discomfort as he continues his recovery from right shoulder inflammation. The Blue Jays have yet to publicly announce when Stroman is expected to make his return to the mound.

With less than three weeks until opening day, it will be a challenge for Stroman to progress through a throwing program and be a part of Toronto’s rotation to begin the season. The most likely scenario will see him miss some time in late March and early April as he continues to get stretched out before he rejoins the Blue Jays.

“He’s feeling good,” Gibbons said. “He said he felt normal. But they’ve still got to build him up. We’ll see where it all goes.”

Bus incident

The two Blue Jays buses that transport the team to away games during spring training were forced off the road Thursday afternoon during their return from Sarasota due to a medical emergency with one of the drivers. The buses were able to pull over safely and no Blue Jays players or staff were harmed.

William Cooper, a longtime bus driver for the team during spring training, has passed away. Cooper’s son, Bernard, also drives buses for the Blue Jays. Flags at Dunedin Stadium flew at half-staff Friday in Cooper’s honour.

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