Estrada builds case to stay in Blue Jays rotation

Nelson Cruz hit his big league-leading 17th home run, Hernandez became the first seven-game winner in the majors and the Seattle Mariners beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 on Friday night.

TORONTO — That the start days of Marco Estrada and Daniel Norris happen to be aligned is no simple coincidence. Things have changed over the past couple of weeks for the Toronto Blue Jays, and while the thought of moving Aaron Sanchez back to the bullpen isn’t totally dead, the current sense is he’s become too valuable to the rotation to consider a switch right now.

Provided Sanchez’s progress continues, the likeliest spot in the rotation for Norris to slide into then is that of Estrada, who further built his case to remain a starter with seven solid innings in a 4-3 loss to Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners on Friday night.

Though the right-hander took the loss, the Blue Jays will gladly take seven innings and four runs on a consistent basis. That’s basically J.A. Happ, and on most nights when they aren’t facing King Felix with a Blue Jays/Buffalo Bisons hybrid lineup, they’ll be able to work with that.

“I think have enough pitches to get through the lineup a few times,” said Estrada, who mixed in his new cutter for the second straight outing and plans to use it more often next time out. “Today it was a couple of unfortunate plays, or balls hit off the end [of the bat], they found the holes when they needed to and it didn’t go my way.

“But I thought I threw a lot of good pitches, made a lot of good quality pitches, it just didn’t go my way.”

Until Norris really gets his game together — after a decent start last time out, he allowed three runs on five hits and four walks with three strikeouts for triple-A Buffalo at Toledo — neither Estrada nor Sanchez needs to look over their shoulder anyway. The Blue Jays want their young lefty firing on all cylinders when he gets back so he can take off and deliver on his high-ceiling upside the way Marcus Stroman did last year.

He’s one of their few legit shots at an internal shot in the arm.

What Estrada offers is a more steady hand, and finally built up physically after moving from the rotation to the bullpen, he pitched beyond the fifth inning for the first time in four starts.

“He’s pitching,” praised manager John Gibbons. “He’s got that great changeup, he was spotting his fastball really well, and he mixed in some breaking balls. Got some key strikeouts, got some roll-overs to second base from some left-handed hitters – he really did a hell of a job.

“We just couldn’t mount enough offence early enough in the game.”

The Blue Jays, who beat Hernandez 10-2 with a makeshift lineup that included Munenori Kawasaki batting fifth last September, were hoping for a similar result this time with another order that looked more Grapefruit League than American League.

Josh Donaldson’s first day off this season was well timed — he’s a career 6-for-33 with a homer and eight strikeouts against Hernandez, and has a “bad calf,” said Gibbons — but that only further depleted an already thin lineup.

Edwin Encarnacion opened the scoring with a solo shot in the first, but the offence petered out quickly after that, which meant trouble for a team that’s won with less than five runs only twice this season.

The turning point came with two out in the fourth, when Kyle Seager hit a spinning squib that was headed foul before curling back fair for a single. Estrada exacerbated the situation by issuing Wellington Castillo a four-pitch walk and Logan Morrison followed with a liner to right that Chris Colabello unwisely and awkwardly dove for, failed to smother and bounded to the wall for a two-run triple.

“I just talked to Michael Saunders about it for a good 15 minutes while we were eating, kind of went through what I saw in my head,” said a distraught Colabello, who is more first baseman than outfielder. “It was kind of a knuckleball, that’s not an excuse, the ball kind of sank on me there at the end. I really got to the point where I thought my best chance to stop it, rather than get an in between hop off the turf, would be to try and get the short hop on the dive.

“Obviously when it got by me I was pretty sick about it, you get an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach, especially because Marco was pitching so well. I’ve got to learn from it and not let it happen again.”

Mike Zunino followed with an RBI double just inside the third-base line, and Hernandez took care of the rest, allowing a run on four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts over seven innings.

The dude is pretty OK pitching.

Estrada surrendered a solo shot to Nelson Cruz to open the sixth — the slugger’s 17th, the pitcher’s sixth — and finished with four runs on six hits and three walks in his seven frames. He struck out five.

“There are going to be days when you’re going to run into a guy like Felix and he’s going to do that to a good hitting team,” said Estrada. “As long as the starters go six-plus innings we’re going to have a real good chance of winning. Things are going to turn around for us. We’re too good for it not to.”

The Blue Jays made things interesting in the ninth, getting a double from Encarnacion before Colabello’s two-run homer, but as has been the case so often of late, it wasn’t enough.

Donaldson, swinging 3-0, flew out to centre for the final out of yet another loss, and the search for how best to configure the puzzle continues.

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