TORONTO – Marco Estrada is on the mound tonight, which means he’ll eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when he gets to the ballpark this afternoon, as per game-day routine.
“That’s all I’ll have,” says the Blue Jays right-hander. “I don’t wanna feel heavy.”
During the game, while he’s not pitching, Estrada will sit in the dugout and hold a white softball in his right hand. He’ll hold it the entire time he’s in the dugout, stretching his fingers as far as they can go over that ball.
“My hands aren’t very big, and there’s times the baseball feels big to me—and I hate that,” Estrada says, holding onto that softball, which he keeps on the top shelf of his locker in the clubhouse. “It’s like a hitter swinging with a donut makes the bat feel lighter. I hold a softball, it makes the baseball feel smaller in my hand.”
As Estrada (1-1, 2.50 ERA) gets set to make his fourth start of the season against lefty Jose Quintana in the finale of Toronto’s three-game set against the White Sox, there’s somebody on the other side of this series who knows that softball trick, knows about the pre-game sandwich, knows Estrada likes pitching in the cold, and knows just about everything about the Jays starter: It’s Dioner Navarro.
The 32-year-old Venezuelan was basically Estrada’s personal catcher last season, before he signed a one-year deal with Chicago.
When Estrada’s name comes up, Navarro grins and laughs. “We struck up a great relationship,” he says. “We became very close.”
You won’t find another player in the game (Blue Jays excluded) with as complete a playbook on Estrada as Navarro has. “My teammates here, they ask me about Marco, I give them insight,” Navarro says, smiling, standing in the visitor’s clubhouse. “The ultimate goal is to kick this guy’s butt.”
The changeup being Estrada’s best pitch, Navarro has a tip on how to hit it, and it sounds pretty simple: “Let it get deep.”
But Navarro admits it’s easier said than done against a changeup he calls “top 3” among those he’s seen in more than a decade of catching in the big leagues. “He’s different, because the pitch comes in the same way like his fastball—it just doesn’t ever get here.”
So, how would a batter tell the difference between the two pitches? “It’s hard to explain,” Navarro says. “You just gotta know how he’s gonna attack you.”
Again, easier said than done.
“We struck up a great relationship,” says catcher Dioner Navarro about Marco Estrada. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Jays infielder/backup catcher Darwin Barney has faced Estrada 11 times in his career. He remembers the one time he got a hit.
“When I was with the Dodgers, I hit a ball to right on a 3-1 count, and the right-fielder lost it in the sun and I got a double,” Barney says, smiling. “That was a big day.”
Barney’s batting average against Estrada is .091, and he’s struck out three times. He says Estrada “had my number,” and that he could never tell if a fastball or changeup was coming down the pipe. “That’s what makes him so good—it’s his arm speed, section, angle. As a hitter, you’re looking for spin or angle, and his changeup and fastball are the same.
“So as you’re on your way in there, you’re kinda screwed. It’s a hard pitch to even sit on, I feel like, because sitting on changeups is a hard thing.”
Estrada, 32, hasn’t spoken to many of his opponents about his signature pitch, but a few of his teammates have offered up their thoughts, Barney included. “I’ve had guys in here tell me that they can’t hit it. You think you see it and you wait on it, and it still doesn’t get there. You swing and for some reason the ball still isn’t there.”
He says batters with a long swing tend to do the best against him. “I feel like because their swing’s so long, they’ll catch the ball in front,” Estrada says. “They’re on one leg, one arm and they still hit it out. I’ve had [Mark] Teixeira in front of a changeup like that and he hit it out.”
Estrada heads into his fourth start coming off his shortest outing so far this season, five innings against Baltimore that saw him give up six hits, one run and four walks (he also struck out nine). In three starts, Estrada has given up 19 hits (one home run) and five earned runs over 18 innings.
He says he’ll know by the first out on Wednesday whether his changeup is on or not. “If I’m able to locate right off the bat, it’ll be a good night,” he says.
Estrada also knows his old buddy Navarro in the visitor’s dugout will be giving tips to his White Sox teammates on how to get to him. “There’s one thing I like to do pretty often that he knows,” Estrada says.
“It doesn’t matter—if I make my pitch, it’s still hard to hit.”
Does Navarro think he can hit Estrada’s changeup, though?
The smiley Venezuelan laughs, raises his eyebrows, and spits into a paper cup. “Yes,” Navarro says. “I can hit it.”