TORONTO – The talking point for contenders kicking around Marco Estrada as a potential add ahead of Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline is whether they saw enough correction in his five innings of two-run ball Wednesday night to buy in on the right-hander.
Certainly containing the Oakland Athletics is no monumental feat, and a better offensive club would likely have punished the four walks he issued far more substantially. But sometimes it takes incremental steps to emerge from the kind of deep funk Estrada has been mired in for two months, and he looked to take some before the Toronto Blue Jays rallied for a thrilling 3-2, walk-off victory.
Josh Donaldson opened the ninth with a walk off an erratic Santiago Casilla, Justin Smoak followed by crushing his 28th homer to tie the game and Kendrys Morales went deep on the next pitch, on another middle-middle cookie, to secure his team’s third straight win.
“It was awesome to see Smoakie come up and hit that two-run home run, and then Morales finish it off,” said Estrada. “It was really exciting.”
Less exciting was his self-evaluation of his performance, which included an impressive run of eight straight batters retired and a handful of vintage change-ups before a crowd of 41,984. He also didn’t let the game unravel during a grinding 27-pitch first in which two potential outs weren’t made behind him. His only real blemish came in the fifth, when Marcus Semien followed a two-out walk to Matt Joyce by lofting a four-seamer over the wall in left.
A value-shopping contender could look at all that, weigh his recent struggles against his performance over the previous two seasons and the first two months of this year, and perhaps talk itself into believing a more significant turnaround is coming.
“It was a little better today but I still don’t like the way I’m throwing the ball. It’s not me, I don’t walk people. That’s the only thing I’m upset about – walks,” said Estrada. “The home run, it is what it is, it’s what happens when you fall behind, it’s a 3-1 fastball, those things are going to happen. But if I stop falling behind so often and walking guys, I wouldn’t get hurt so much. I’m working on that.
“I do feel like I took a step in the right direction, things are getting better and turned around, and the guys pulled it off.”
The scuttlebutt has been mixed on that front in recent days, with rumblings that the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers, two teams that had been considering Estrada, are looking elsewhere. The Royals, who are also said to be seeking a bat to aid their push, had been debating between Estrada and Francisco Liriano, who offers some appeal as a weapon out of the bullpen, as well.
Either way, a team in need of a starter that comes up empty in its other pursuits could circle back to the Blue Jays and decide to take the plunge.
“Early on, he was having his command issues, but as he started to get into the third and fourth inning, he looked like the old guy, starting to stick it better,” said manager John Gibbons. “Of course he gave up the two-run homer and we were down, but he’s got to be able to take something from that, I would hope. He’s probably still a little frustrated but we saw some good things. And he got through five. That’s been his tough inning for a while.”
Given that Estrada’s next scheduled start is Monday in Chicago versus the White Sox, the outing against Oakland was the last chance for teams to evaluate him before the deadline, and possibly his last with the Blue Jays, an emotional consideration for the right-hander. Since his acquisition from Milwaukee after the 2014 season for Adam Lind, he’s blossomed into an all-star who has starred during the post-season runs of 2015 and ’16.
“He’s been unbelievable,” said Smoak. “The games that he’s pitched for us in the playoffs and tough games down the stretch, he’s been unbelievable, he keeps us in games, you know you’re going to get five, six, maybe seven good innings out of him, and he’s great to play with and play behind, and he was able to do that tonight for us.”
During an interview last week, he said the uncertainty about his future had been on his mind and he was trying to block it out because, “I love Toronto so much that I’d like to stay here.” A very possible scenario is that the Blue Jays trade him ahead of the deadline and then re-sign him during the winter, when they’ll need to add at least one, if not two starters.
“I don’t think about it,” Estrada said of the trade talk. “If it happens, it happens.”
The Blue Jays’ pitching calculations depend, in part, on what they do with Joe Biagini, a possibility to rejoin the rotation should Estrada and/or Liriano be traded in the coming days. The Blue Jays are also down Aaron Sanchez, and the plan is to wait for his fingernail to grow over his latest blister before he resumes pitching, so he’s going to be out a while.
Cesar Valdez is already in the rotation, while Mike Bolsinger will be eligible to return from the disabled list Saturday and could start, if needed. Lucas Harrell and the recently acquired Nick Tepesch are possibilities at triple-A Buffalo, underlining how difficult it might be to cover the remaining two months without Estrada and/or Liriano.
Maybe that won’t be the case, and one or both of them finish out the campaign with the Blue Jays. But considering the sense of what’s transpiring, it sure seems like Wednesday was a sendoff.