BOSTON – Somewhat lost amid the incessant hysteria triggered by the Toronto Blue Jays’ early-season slump is how Aaron Sanchez is quickly emerging as a significant force as a starting pitcher. Often, he looks like a man amongst boys, beating opposing hitters in the strike zone when they aren’t helplessly waving over his filthy curveball. He was more than deserving of wins in his first two starts. Frankly, he’s making the entire notion that he should have started the year as a reliever seem totally absurd.
On Sunday, when manager John Gibbons shook up his lineup by inserting Michael Saunders into the leadoff spot while dropping Kevin Pillar to eighth, Sanchez finally got some runs in support of yet another dominant effort. Pitching like a man determined to pull his team from its rut, he allowed only a run on two hits with four walks while striking out seven over seven innings in a 5-3 Blue Jays win over the Boston Red Sox.
Every once in a while a team needs its starter to grab a game by the throat and not let go. Sanchez did precisely that.
"He’s done great all along and he did great again today," said Jose Bautista, who homered in the first and doubled home a run in the ninth. "He didn’t let any situations get out of hand, even when he walked a few guys or they found some hits after they broke up the no-hitter, he’s just done a terrific job. Throwing seven innings and two hits, we’ll take it every time."
Some early offence helped the cause, as Bautista opened the scoring with a solo shot off knuckleballer Stephen Wright before consecutive singles by Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Colabello, the latter collecting his first RBI of the season, pushed the advantage to 2-0. The Blue Jays last managed four straight hits on April 8 against Boston, during a six-run fourth inning.
"It’s nice to go out there with two runs on the board, not really feeling like I have to be too fine," said Sanchez.
As has been their pattern, the Blue Jays went mostly dry at the plate for a while after that, but this time they managed to tack on some extra runs after the Red Sox made it a one-run game in the fifth. In the seventh, Josh Donaldson cashed in a leadoff Ryan Goins single with a double off the Green Monster in left-centre, and scored two batters later on an Encarnacion single.
The four runs while he was on the mound marked the most support Sanchez has received this season, having taken no-decisions in a pair of 3-2 losses. The Blue Jays tacked on another run in the ninth on Bautista’s double, and the padding came in handy when Roberto Osuna gave up a two-run shot in the bottom half to Travis Shaw before closing things out.
They finished with a season-high 14 hits, something taken as a good sign, even as they stranded 11 men.
"Considering the circumstances so far, hopefully (the 14 hits) does a lot," said Gibbons. "We’ve been waiting for one of those, we had some opportunities to score some more runs, that didn’t happen, but we really needed that. That’s kind of our trademark, our offence, we did that so many times last year. It’s evaded us this year to this point, maybe that sparks us."
Sanchez made sure it didn’t go to waste, as he went on the offensive right from outset, striking out four of his first eight batters and not allowing a hit until there were two outs in the fifth, when Marco Hernandez, making his big-league debut, sent a broken-bat flare into short left. That left him muttering on the mound, and things got worse when Hernandez promptly stole second, advanced to third on Russell Martin’s throwing error and scored on a Mookie Betts dribbler up the middle.
Rather than losing composure the way he did after his throwing error led to a New York Yankees run last week, Sanchez settled and kept the Red Sox at bay from there. Pillar helped on that front, making a nifty sliding catch on a Ryan Hanigan blooper in the fifth before chasing down a David Ortiz smash to deep left-centre and snatching it with a leap on the track.
"That was a big learning curve, that only happened a start ago, to understand it is what it is," Sanchez said of maintaining his composure. "Momentum can change here in Boston as you know, and for me it was going back out there and trying to attack the zone and making sure I get outs, not letting something like that affect me."
At the plate, Pillar responded to the shift down the lineup with three hits in four at-bats, ending an 0-for-8 skid.
A scary moment came in the fourth, when Colabello was hit in the side of the helmet by an 86 mph fastball from Wright. He dropped to the ground while trainer Mike Frostad and manager John Gibbons rushed out to see him. Eventually he stood up and took his base.
Asked how he felt after the game, he replied: "Good, like nothing happened. I got lucky."
And his first RBI of the season?
"I was going to throw a party for myself but then I decided not to," quipped Colabello. "Anything to help the team get ahead early in the game is important. Hopefully it’s the first of many."
The Blue Jays feel the same way about wins for Sanchez.
Gibbons noted how calm his starter looked before the game, and was impressed with the way he maintained it. That demeanour has changed from when Sanchez started last year.
"To me, he looks like a totally different guy," said Gibbons. "In command, confident, poised, whatever you want to call it. He’s come a long way and, shoot, he’s just going to get better and better."
That would bode well for the Blue Jays, who continue to wait for their offence to fully arrive, but for now can find some solace in knowing that their promising 23-year-old is already here.