TORONTO — Marco Estrada gave it all he could. Pitching through sharp pain in his lower back that prevented him from even bending over to pick up the ball at the beginning of the game, Estrada fought through five gutsy innings against Cleveland Saturday, in an eventual 9-6 Blue Jays win.
“I tried to hold it back as much as I could, but it obviously didn’t feel very good today,” Estrada said. “I think my first pitch was 83 miles an hour.”
Estrada’s fastball, normally an 89-90 mph offering, sat in the 85-86 mph range throughout the afternoon. At the end of innings, he walked gingerly back to the Blue Jays dugout, often getting beaten to the steps by Ezequiel Carrera, who was coming in from right field.
When he had to run off the mound to cover first base in the third, Estrada laboured back to the rubber where he took a few moments to let the pain subside. The Blue Jays infielders threw the ball around slowly to give him more time, as Darwin Barney bent over behind the mound to retie his shoelaces.
At one point, when the home plate umpire threw him a ball above his head, Estrada let it sail to second base because he couldn’t jump. At another, when Barney threw him a ball that tailed below his waist, Estrada let it hit his leg and fall to the ground so he could bend at his knees and pick it up.
“I don’t even know if they wanted me to pitch today. But I told them, ‘we just played a 19 inning game. We used everybody. What else are we going to do?’ I’m going to take the ball and give you as many innings as possible,’” Estrada said. “I’m surprised I was able to even get through five.”
And still, Estrada struck out seven over his five innings, allowing just three runs on five hits in what may be his last start for a while. The 30-year-old was headed for an MRI after the game, and said that if his back pain didn’t subside, he likely wouldn’t be able to make his next start.
“I don’t know if I can do this again. If it hurts as much as it did today, I’m probably going to have to watch the next game. I’m hoping to make it, but we’ll see,” Estrada said. “I’m sure we’re going to keep doing a lot of treatment on it. But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It would be a shame if Estrada had to miss time, considering he’s put together what should be an all-star season. He holds a 2.93 ERA in his 16 starts, the fifth-best mark among American League starters. He’s struck out 36 in 29.2 innings over his last five starts, and Saturday marked just the second time this season that he hasn’t pitched at least six innings.
But this clearly can’t continue. Estrada needs his velocity if he’s going to work up in the zone effectively, and he’s had trouble locating his curveball over his last two starts, removing the pitch from his repertoire almost entirely. He managed to throw 60 per cent of his pitches for strikes on Saturday, and earned plenty of swing-and-miss. But when Cleveland batters made contact with his pitches, they were generally hit hard.
“It was tough. Trying to elevate on guys doesn’t work as well,” Estrada said. “When it’s 84 or 85 miles an hour, you’re probably not going to sneak one by anybody. But I located pretty well, I guess. About as well as you can locate with a back issue. And I thought it went pretty well. You take all things into consideration and I’ll take that.”
The Blue Jays victory brought an end to Cleveland’s 14-game winning streak, but it certainly wasn’t easy as the game see-sawed back and forth all afternoon. It didn’t start well for Toronto, as the first batter of the game, Rajai Davis, hammered a full count Estrada offering 397-feet to left field for an early one-run lead.
But the Blue Jays battled back in the bottom of the inning, putting two runners on for Edwin Encarnacion, who avenged his first-inning Canada Day ejection with a 411-foot rocket to dead centre field to give his team a 3-1 lead.
Cleveland tied the game off a grinding Estrada with a pair of hits in the third and a Carlos Santana homer in the fourth, but Troy Tulowitzki pulled the Blue Jays back ahead in the fifth with his 13th home run of the season, a two-run shot to make it 5-3.
Cleveland got one back in the sixth when Joe Biagini caught Juan Uribe on the hand with a full-count, bases-loaded, 95-mph fastball to bring in a run. Aaron Loup, recalled from triple-A Buffalo the night before to help the Blue Jays ailing bullpen, came on in place of Biagini and got Tyler Naquin to ground out softly to escape the jam.
Alas, there was more trouble in the seventh when Drew Hutchison, who was recalled from Buffalo along with Loup, took over and gave up rocket after rocket. The 25-year-old, who started 60 games for the Blue Jays over the last two seasons, got a pair of loud outs around a Davis double before Jose Ramirez drove in Davis and Mike Napoli crushed a first-pitch slider to the wall to put Cleveland back up by one. Four of the six Hutchison pitches Cleveland put in play came off the bat at 97 mph or faster.
But it was another short-lived lead, as Josh Donaldson rocketed the first pitch of the bottom half of the inning 431-feet to centre to tie things up at six.
“I was being aggressive. I was going to be ready for the first pitch,” Donaldson said. “I wasn’t necessarily going to swing at it, depending on if it was a good pitch for me to hit or not. But I was ready.”
Then, in the seventh, it was Donaldson again, this time serving a soft single into centre field with two runners on to cash Ezequiel Carrera from second base. Carrera was originally called out at home but a three-and-a-half minute review overturned the call on an extremely close play to give the Blue Jays the lead.
“Those are close, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know what angle or what view they have,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of the replay. “We liked what we saw but you never know for sure. And we caught a break. A big break.”
Michael Saunders drove in a pair later in the inning to add some insurance, and Roberto Osuna worked a scoreless ninth for his 16th save.
Now, the Blue Jays turn their focus to Estrada’s health, and whether he’ll be able to make his next start. Estrada said the pain felt similar to what he experienced during spring training, when he battled soreness in both of the sacroiliac joints in his lower back. He says that this time it’s the left joint that’s troubling him the most, but that he’s still in constant pain.
“I’m glad I was able to give the team some innings. They knew I was struggling. But they also knew I wasn’t going to come out until it was my time to come out,” Estrada said. “It was a grind. It was a battle. But we pulled it off and that’s all that matters.”