High-stakes Sanchez dilemma hangs in the air for Blue Jays

The Blue Jays are now 0.5 games behind the Orioles in the AL East standings after falling 6-2 in a twelve-inning game Sunday afternoon.

TORONTO – The back-room chatter around Aaron Sanchez is reminiscent of that during spring training, when the right-hander was destined for the bullpen and team officials scrambled to develop scenarios allowing him to start. Eventually a compromise was found, he’d open in the rotation and transition to the bullpen, and 139.1 all-star innings later, here we are again, high-stakes dilemma in the air.

The challenge now is in finding ways to keep Sanchez in the rotation for the rest of the season, with options such as regular extra rest, starting three out of every four turns, and letting him run the table getting thrown around. It may very well be an exercise in futility – this could be a decision that’s not changing.

As all that plays out behind the scenes, Sanchez’s surpassing his previous career-high inning count of 133.1 during Sunday’s 6-2, 12-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles, plus the impending arrival of Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline helped pushed matters toward a critical mass. The Blue Jays continue to pursue starting pitching, but the question remains whether they’ll ante up the necessary prospect capital to swing a deal in a thin market.

“That’s cool,” Sanchez said of establishing a new career-best in innings. “Going into the year I think we all knew it was going to be a career-high in innings, something I strove for in the off-season. I feel like I’ve pitched pretty well, a few bad ones here and there. The biggest thing is I feel strong, I feel like I haven’t even broken a sweat in terms of that aspect. I don’t feel fatigued, I haven’t felt fatigued all year. Just keep it rolling.”

The Blue Jays are thought to have made Rich Hill of the Oakland Athletics and Jeremy Hellickson of the Philadelphia Phillies two focal points, and they’ve discussed internally how they would handle Hill’s troublesome blister issue. They also reportedly watched Ervin Stantana’s start for the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, and have followed countless other starters, too. Still, there are no guarantees they get anyone given how competitive the field is for starting pitching, and they’ve also done some work on relievers like Will Smith, Boone Logan and David Robertson, among others.

The Cleveland Indians’ pickup of Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees for two elite prospects plus two other players was a steep price. But the single mid-tier prospect fetched by the Chicago White Sox from the St. Louis Cardinals for Zach Duke and by the Arizona Diamondbacks from the Yankees for Tyler Clippard is probably more indicative of that market.

Should the Blue Jays stand pat, they have Drew Hutchison down at triple-A Buffalo positioned as their sixth starter. Interesting, but not necessarily indicative of anything, is that the Tampa Bay Rays scouted Hutchison’s second most recent start and watched Dalton Pompey, as well.

The clock is ticking there, although the Blue Jays have the payroll flexibility to make an August waiver deal, and time may also be running out on Sanchez the starter.

The Orioles barely touched him through four although in the fifth, he lost the handle on a pitch, seemed to rub his fingertips, and then finished the inning with his velocity down from 94-95 to 91-92. Sanchez came back out for the sixth with his velocity back.

“None,” Sanchez said when asked if he had any issues with blisters.

In the seventh, he walked Chris Davis to open the inning and surrendered a double to Mark Trumbo that ripped through Darwin Barney at third. A groundball by Pedro Alvarez and fly ball by Matt Wieters tied the game 2-2 and Sanchez finished the afternoon having allowed two runs on four hits and two walks over seven frames, striking out three.

“I thought there were a couple of questionable calls, maybe one or two in that at-bat that changes my approach to Davis there, but with that being said, anytime you issue a leadoff walk it seems to come and haunt you. And for sure it did,” said Sanchez. “I feel like it was a great day, it just sucks we can’t pull that one out there at the end. They’re a good team though. As far as myself, I feel like I did a good job of putting the ball where I wanted to all (day). It’s just unfortunate.”

The Blue Jays opened the scoring against Chris Tillman in the second when Russell Martin doubled, advanced to third on Kevin Pillar’s infield single and scored when Devon Travis beat out a potential inning-ending double play at first base.

They moved ahead 2-0 when Troy Tulowitzki turned Tillman’s first pitch of the fourth into his 18th homer of the season, but the star shortstop was hit on the right hand in the sixth and left the game in the top of the eighth. He suffered a chip fracture in the middle part of his thumb and will be re-evaluated Monday.

A crowd of 46,792 groaned in the 12th as Franklin Morales issued a leadoff, four-pitch walk to Pedro Alvarez and then get called for a balk after a pickoff attempt might have had the slugger at first. That proved costly when Jonathon Schoop lifted a single to left to bring in the go-ahead run. After a J.J. Hardy walk, Jesse Chavez took over and Adam Jones pummelled his first pitch over the wall in left-centre to blow things open.

“I thought he was great again,” manager John Gibbons said of Sanchez. “He was on, both guys, there were two pretty good ones battling out there. They went out there after that long (sixth) inning, the leadoff walk, those are never good things, Trumbo got the hit and it was good situational hitting by those guys, get them over, get them in. We locked into that tied ballgame, we ran through our ‘pen, they did too, and then they got the big hits.”

The victory allowed the Orioles to avoid a three-game sweep and leave town with a half-game lead in the AL East, and like the Blue Jays they continue to hunt for starting pitching they so desperately need. The Blue Jays are strong on that front, but Sanchez’s standing can quickly change the outlook on that.

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