Estrada makes strong free agency case with another solid outing

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — This is not the season Marco Estrada wanted to have as he heads into free agency. Too many starts that went awry, too many big innings inflating his ERA, too many outings when he got hit all over the yard.

But he’s finding a way to end it on a high note. And if his three or four remaining starts continue the trend, Estrada will go into this winter’s contract negotiations with a much better case to make — whether it’s with the Toronto Blue Jays or someone else.

The veteran right-hander continued a strong 10-start stretch Monday night, allowing two runs on four hits over five innings in a 4-3 Blue Jays win over the Baltimore Orioles. While he didn’t get as deep into the game as he would’ve liked, Estrada had phenomenal stuff on the night, and pitched with perhaps his best command of the season.

"Yeah, it’s definitely come back," Estrada said of his command. "It was a weird year. I went through a rough patch there where I had no clue where the ball was going. These things happen — everybody goes through them. It just took me a while to get out of it. I think as of late I’ve turned my season around. I’ve been pitching much better. I’ve just got to finish strong."

Estrada cruised through his first three innings, allowing only a single while striking out five, all of them looking. That unusual circumstance was thanks to a combination of Estrada locating exceptionally and home plate umpire Chris Segal being generous with the corners.

But Manny Machado doubled to lead off the fourth before Adam Jones snuck a groundball through the left side of the infield to plate one. And there was another run in the fifth, as Mark Trumbo fouled off four consecutive two-strike pitches before turning on a fastball for a solo shot.

"I did miss on that one to Trumbo. I was trying to get it in and kind of left it middle-in and elevated, so he hit it out," Estrada said. "But, other than that, the other hits I gave up weren’t too bad. They were on decent pitches. So, I’m happy with everything."

Long at-bats like Trumbo’s are the primary reason Estrada wasn’t able to go deeper in this game on a night when his stuff was working as well as it has all year. He was up to 95 pitches after only five innings, and didn’t come out for the sixth, handing things over to Toronto’s crowded September bullpen.

Still, it was the eighth time in Estrada’s last 10 outings that he’s held the opposition to three runs or less, as he’s spent his summer slowly picking away at an ERA that stood at 5.52 in late July. That ERA is now 4.96, and while he doesn’t have enough time to get it much lower than that, Estrada is pitching very well as he rapidly approaches free agency.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has expressed interest in re-signing Estrada, and the 34-year-old has expressed interest himself in remaining a Blue Jay. But if Estrada keeps pitching the way he is, Toronto could have some competition for his services come November.

"It’s always how you finish, right? It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish," Estrada said. "If I can show that I’m back to my normal self, what I’ve done the last few years for these guys, maybe they’ll want me back. And I’m hoping to come back. So, I’m trying. I’m trying to show them that I’m still that guy. I’ve just got to keep pitching well."

Estrada pounded the zone Monday, earning 12 swinging strikes as he leaned heavily on his fastball, mixing in just enough change-ups and curveballs to keep hitters off balance. He allowed only 12 balls to be put in play (with a low average exit velocity of 78.8 mph) while striking out seven batters, six of them looking.

"I’d prefer to go deeper into the game and not have any strike outs," Estrada said. "Wish I could’ve gone a little deeper, but it is what it is."

Although Danny Barnes and Tom Koehler combined to cough up a run in the seventh, the bullpen held behind Estrada as the Blue Jays edged out a win, their third in a row. With Roberto Osuna away from the team for the birth of his child, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons turned to Dominic Leone in the ninth, and watched as the 25-year-old earned his first career save, punctuated by a strikeout of Trumbo with the tying run on second base.

"These guys, it’s great for them when they step up. Tonight, one run ball game — that’s really, really big," Gibbons said of Leone’s save. "It’s not an easy thing to do. But it shows us something."

Earlier, the Blue Jays built a quick lead, scoring a pair in the second as a Keystone Cops film temporarily broke out at Rogers Centre.

It started when Teoscar Hernandez lifted a weak fly ball with a one per cent hit probability into right field, only to watch Trumbo lose it completely, let it drop, and then fumble the ball into the seats, which resulted in Hernandez standing on third base.

He’d score on a Ryan Goins groundout, but the circus continued a batter later when Darwin Barney drove a breaking ball to deep right-centre field, where Adam Jones had all kinds of trouble with it.

Barney appeared to lose the ball himself and threw on the brakes as he rounded second, only to start up again, slide far too early on his way to third, and end up crawling by his elbows to the base. Barney had a much easier time jogging home when Richard Urena hit a loud double behind him, as Toronto went ahead by two.

"The fans looked a little bored — thought I’d get them on their feet a little bit right there," Barney said with a smile. "There’s been a little bug going around. And I woke up today feeling pretty crummy. I had no legs. So, I knew I had three all the way but I decided to hold up, because I didn’t think I’d make it. I was losing my legs right there.

"And then, of course, he drops that ball. And I’ve gotta get here. So, [my legs] locked up on me and the rest is history. But, hey, I got on third for Urena and he got me in. So, got the job done."

Goins added a third run in the fourth, taking a poorly-located slider from Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez 412-feet over the right field wall for his seventh home run of the season. And Barney cashed another in the sixth, dribbling an infield single towards first base that allowed Miguel Montero to cruise home from third.

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