TORONTO – The thing that’s most perplexing about Aaron Sanchez right now is how quickly he shifts from on to off, the way he’s striking out Travis Snider on three pitches one moment, walking Manny Machado on four pitches the next.
Really, it’s hard to make sense of his line in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 4-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night, when he allowed two runs over 5.1 innings on two hits and seven – SEVEN! – walks, plus four strikeouts.
Only a handful of balls were hit hard off the electric 23-year-old right-hander, and he induced six groundouts to one air out in picking up his first big-league win as a starter. Simply getting the ball out of the infield was an achievement for the Orioles.
But then again did we mention the walks? There were seven of them.
"That’s what’s tough with what I throw," said Sanchez, the first Blue Jays starter to earn a win despite seven walks since Jeff Ware against Detroit on Sept. 8, 1995. "I have a sinker that has tremendous life and when I don’t have that down pat, you could see it tonight, I get away from myself and things start going south. I’ll work on that this week in my bullpen and harness that through the rest of the year."
That’s why the thought of how impossible it would be to hit Sanchez if only he were in the zone more consistently – he threw 83 pitches, 43 for strikes – remains such a tantalizing one. Even if he gets his strike percentage back up to the 61.3 percent it was at last year as a reliever, compared to the 57.3 percent it was at to begin the night, would make a difference.
So too would pitching ahead more consistently – he started off 12 of the 23 Orioles he faced with strikes, which is much better than his first-pitch strike percentage of 39 percent so far this season, and just off last year’s pace of 53.3 percent.
Not coincidentally, his strikes looking are down to 20.9 percent from 30.2 percent last year. The way his fastball moves he’s going to get his takes, he just needs to keep that movement in the zone to make it count.
"Oh yeah, absolutely, and that’s what you saw tonight," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "There were seven walks yet somehow, some way he gets through that game and gets us into the sixth inning with a lead. Certainly if he’s throwing strikes consistently, he’s going to be a very tough pitcher to face, and that’s what we envision."
If only it were as easy as it sounds.
But given what Sanchez can look like on a night when he issues seven walks – only one coming around on a Jimmy Paredes two-run homer in the third – it’s worth giving him more time to more consistently find the zone.
He doesn’t need to suddenly become Mark Buehrle – but there’s a happier medium to be found.
"If you had the answer to that it wouldn’t happen, you’d be able to correct it," said manager John Gibbons. "There’s a lot of violence to him, it’s a violent delivery, he gears it up pretty good. He’ll figure that out, it’s one of those things that comes in time. He’s had walk issues in the minor leagues, he’s still a young kid and that’s part of the maturing process, it’s not necessarily unusual for those guys with the big arms. He’s just doing that right now at the big-league level."
Even if he delivers more outings just like Wednesday, the Blue Jays should win more than their share of such outings.
They clubbed a pair of home runs off Ubaldo Jimenez to beat the Orioles for a second straight night, with both teams focused on the game after receiving warnings from Major League Baseball and the umpiring crew that no more shenanigans would be tolerated after Tuesday’s brouhaha.
Justin Smoak, 1-for-15 in his career against Jimenez when he stepped into the box in the fourth inning, slapped a two-run shot off the top of the wall in left-centre to tie the game 2-2, his first homer with the Blue Jays.
Then Devon Travis, picking up right where he left off after missing a game with bruised ribs, blasted a two-run shot to dead centre in the fifth inning to provide the winning margin. Travis remains tied with Tampa’s Steven Souza Jr., for the big-league lead among rookies with four home runs and the second baseman leads all freshmen with 14 RBIs.
"I don’t know what’s happening," Travis said of his power surge. "That’s just a blessing because I don’t know where the heck that’s coming from."
Roberto Osuna delivered a crucial bit of relief work after Sanchez left on a pair of walks with one out in the sixth, getting Ryan Flaherty to pop out and striking out Caleb Joseph after a Manny Machado single loaded the bases.
Brett Cecil and Miguel Castro, with 1.1 innings of work for his third save, also helped nail things down.
Sanchez could very well have been in one of those relief roles, but amid the growing pains, it’s well worth giving him more rope to see what he can do as a starter.