Blue Jays notebook: Getting most out of Martin a balancing act

Toronto Blue Jays' Russell Martin. (Mary Schwalm/AP)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Russell Martin’s not himself at the plate right now. That’s stating the obvious, considering he recently struck out nine consecutive times, so his opposite field single was a welcome sight for the Blue Jays in Friday’s series opener against the Rays.

“He needed that,” manager John Gibbons said. “He definitely needed that.”

There’s a bigger picture to consider when it comes to those nine strikeouts. Martin’s playing through lingering neck soreness — the kind of injury that would seemingly have to affect his ability to hit.

“That I can guarantee you,” Gibbons said. “He knows how important he is to the team with the pitching staff, too. You’ve got to sacrifice a little (offence) just to get the most out of those guys.”

Martin came within one strikeout of tying Rick Ankiel’s MLB record 10 consecutive whiffs for a position player before hitting a single in the seventh inning Friday. If Martin were fully healthy, he wouldn’t strike out nine times in a row. Then again, there’s more to Martin’s game than his offence, and the Blue Jays benefit from his receiving and throwing ability regardless of how he fares at the plate.

“I think he’s OK,” Gibbons said. “He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s good enough to play, he’ll tell you that.”

The Blue Jays successfully walked the line of playing through pain vs. playing hurt in 2015, when the likes of Martin and Josh Donaldson brought a welcome level of toughness to the team. They’re facing a similar challenge early in 2016.

CHANGE OF PACE: Aaron Sanchez’s fastball and curve were both working Friday, so he didn’t need to rely on his third pitch all that often. Even so, he looked for ways to mix in his changeup.

“It comes down to reading swings,” Sanchez said. “When the time is right my changeup is still pretty firm, too, so it’s got to be a well-located pitch. Yeah it’s tough, but I’ll find a way to mix it in here and there.”

Sanchez threw 10 changeups, 71 fastballs and 22 curves, according to Brooks Baseball. Along the way he generated 12 swings and misses, the most since his first start of 2016.

STRIKEOUTS ON THE RISE: The Houston Astros are the lone lineup with more strikeouts than the Blue Jays, who are averaging more than nine per game. While the Blue Jays expect their fair share of strikeouts, Gibbons doesn’t think this pace will continue.

“There’s no doubt we’re striking out way too much,” Gibbons said. “But (making contact) is always easier said than done.”

Slugging teams often strike out regularly, but Blue Jays sluggers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson are typically tough to strike out. For context, 23 teams struck out more times than the Blue Jays last year, when they fielded a similar team.

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