CHICAGO – From trade bait to extension candidate? That’s certainly how Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins positioned pending free agent Marco Estrada after the non-waiver trade deadline came and went without a deal for the right-hander.
"We’re in the business of making this organization better and if a deal doesn’t present itself to do so, then we’re happy to keep Marco Estrada a Toronto Blue Jay," Atkins said on a conference call Monday evening, "and we’ll start thinking about not only how he impacts us now, but how he can potentially impact us beyond 2017."
Shortly after his boss dropped that intriguing nugget, Estrada went out and delivered his best outing in two months, holding the Chicago White Sox to a single run over seven strong innings in what ended as a 7-6, walkoff loss. Despite the strong performance, Estrada still hasn’t won a start since May 27, when he threw six strong frames in a 3-1 victory at Texas.
The uncertainty that led up to his start – he put away his phone and steered clear of TVs to avoid any trade chatter – underlined how strong his effort was, and reinforced his desire to remain with the Blue Jays.
"I’m sure they want me back. I hope they do," Estrada said. "I’ve expressed a lot that I’m really happy here and I’d like to stay, and I guess today is a sign of that if I wasn’t traded. Or maybe nobody really wanted me – I haven’t been pitching all that great and it’s hard to get what you want for me. I don’t know. That stuff, I really don’t want to worry about it. I’m here, I’m pitching for these guys, at the end of the season we’ll try and work something out, I hope. That’s all I can ask for."
A six-pitch first got him rolling and Estrada – throwing 59 fastballs, 41 changeups and a single curveball in his 101 pitches – was never in danger of ceding control against a rookie-laden lineup that featured only three players with more than a full season in the big-leagues.
"Best we’ve seen him in a while," praised manager John Gibbons.
The Blue Jays built a 6-0 lead on solo homers from Josh Donaldson in the first plus Russell Martin and Justin Smoak in the fourth, along with a three-run double from Darwin Barney in the sixth on a popper that led to a frightening collision that knocked second baseman Yoan Moncada and right-fielder Willy Garcia from the game.
A leaping Moncada’s right knee clipped a sliding Garcia’s head in short right, leaving both players sprawled on the ground as the ball popped loose. It was ruled a three-run double and not an out because Garcia didn’t demonstrate firm and secure control of the ball and voluntary release before the momentum of the catch ended.
As the White Sox trainers were joined by Blue Jays assistant trainer Mike Frostad in tending to Garcia, Blue Jays head trainer George Poulis rushed out to help Moncada, who was eventually carted off the field. X-Rays were negative and he suffered a knee contusion, while Garcia will be re-evaluated Tuesday with a head contusion.
But a day after erasing a six-run deficit in the ninth to beat the Los Angeles Angels, a six-run lead of their own wasn’t enough for the Blue Jays.
The White Sox scratched out a sacrifice fly off Estrada in the seventh, tacked on four in the eighth against Joe Biagini and Ryan Tepera, before bleeding Roberto Osuna on two-out RBI singles from Jose Abreu and Matt Davidson to win it.
Earlier this month, Estrada revealed in an interview that the uncertainty about his future had been on his mind and had perhaps affected him because he loved Toronto so much and wanted to stay.
While drawing a correlation between the passing of the deadline and his rebound Monday would be silly – he’d been trending the right way in recent outings, coming off a five-inning, two-run effort against Oakland last time out –the peace of mind is sure to have helped.
"When you keep getting asked every day, it’s kind of hard to let it go," said Estrada. "Baseball is a business, I understand, it’s part of it. If it was going to happen it was going to happen. I’ve expressed to them I’m really happy here and I love playing for Toronto. I’m glad I was still here and I was able to pitch well for them today. I just wish we would have won."
Estrada is finishing out a $26-million, two-year deal he signed after his breakout 2015 season, starring in the post-season the past two years while growing into one of the team’s more popular players.
The Blue Jays will need at least one starter, if not two, for next year behind Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, and given the familiarity both ways, Estrada makes sense, particularly since the feeling around the team is that the past two months have been an aberration in performance rather than a sign of decline.
Estrada was back in the zone Monday, walking only one while throwing 72 of his 101 pitches for strikes. He struck out five and got an impressive 17 swinging strikes, 11 of them with his changeup.
"It’s just one start but I did feel a lot better out there," said Estrada. "Obviously I haven’t been myself lately and it’s not fun going there not really knowing where the ball is going. Today was definitely night and day from what it’s been. I felt really good out there, Russ called a great game, defence was awesome, even the hitting, we scored a lot of runs, it just got away from us and it sucks. But yeah, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, something I really needed. This whole trade thing, I’m just glad it’s done with and I don’t have to hear about it anymore. Just move on and pitch well for these guys."
Estrada did that Monday night, and perhaps took a step towards an extended future with the Blue Jays, too.