Blue Jays’ Sanchez tinkering with change-up in final spring starts

John Gibbons talked about Aaron Sanchez coming back after a year that saw him face multiple set-backs, and what he expects from the Blue Jays starter this season.

ORLANDO, Fla. – By this point in the spring, Aaron Sanchez has a pretty good idea of how the ball’s leaving his hand and how hitters are responding once his pitches reach home plate.

So far, he’s encouraged, and with two starts remaining before the games start to count, his expectations for himself are once again high.

“Absolutely,” Sanchez said. “And if they’re not, then we have a problem.”

His latest outing saw him pitch into the fifth inning for the first time this spring, and allowed him to work on his off-speed pitches, particularly his change-up. He threw 64 pitches, many of which were fastballs in the 94-96 m.p.h. range. Ronald Acuna, considered the top prospect in baseball, hit one of those fastballs over the right-centre-field wall, but overall Sanchez pitched well, allowing two runs on six hits in 4.1 innings against the Atlanta Braves while walking one and striking out three.

“I’m excited, man,” Sanchez said afterwards. “I know the ceiling’s pretty high for me, and for me I just want to reach the ceiling as fast as I can. It’s a work in progress, but I’m here for the long haul and I’m ready to work, so let’s get it.”

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Early in spring training, Sanchez had to make sure that he was feeling healthy, with no lingering effects of the blister and finger issues that sidelined him for most of the 2017 season. But as manager John Gibbons put it, “I think he’s over that now.” Having established his health, Sanchez can focus more on his stuff without having to prove himself as a starter the way he did in 2015 and 2016.

On Tuesday, that security allowed Sanchez to rely on his change-up. He leaned on the pitch heavily against the Braves, testing it early and often.

“I thought the big thing was he threw some very good change-ups,” Gibbons said afterwards.

Aside from the change-up, Sanchez was pleased with his fastball command and encouraged to pitch into the fifth inning for the first time this spring.

“With where my stuff’s at right now, it’s a good indication that the future’s bright for me and I’ve known that for a long time,” Sanchez said. “That’s why I come here to work every day.”

“There’s no telling how good he can be,” Gibbons added. “He’s got a chance to be one of the best for a lot of years, if it all comes together.”

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From here, Sanchez will make two more spring starts, one outing in which he pushes his workload beyond the 64 pitches he threw Tuesday, perhaps to the 80-85 pitch mark. Then he’ll ease up in his final spring start so he’s not tired entering the season.

The Blue Jays could align Sanchez’s upcoming starts to make him the opening day starter, but the likes of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada are also under consideration for that job, according to Gibbons. Whether or not Sanchez gets the call, his goals remains the same.

“I don’t really put thought into it,” he said. “It’d be a huge honour, for sure. I haven’t been able to do that yet, but I don’t put much thought into it. If it is me, I’ll take the honour and if it’s not me I’ll be cheering them on. To me it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, us five guys stay together. If it’s me, I’m happy. If it ain’t, I’m happy.”

And if Sanchez keeps pitching the way he did in 2016, the Blue Jays will be happy, too.

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