BOSTON — A year ago starts like this were truly surprising. Now, Marco Estrada has established himself to the extent that it’s no longer abnormal to see him hold opponents hitless for extended periods.
“He’s been doing that for two years,” manager John Gibbons said. “It shouldn’t surprise anybody, really.”
The 32-year-old took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the offensively talented Boston Red Sox Sunday before Chris Young hit an 88 mph fastball over the Green Monster. Still, Estrada pitched masterfully, completing 7.1 no-hit innings before allowing the home run to Young. After the game Estrada said he was focused on limiting runs, not thinking about a potential no-hitter.
“I just want to go out and put up zeroes. I don’t care how many hits I give up,” he said. “If it happens it’d be really nice, but it’s not something that I’m thinking about.”
Russell Martin didn’t actually realize he was catching a no-hit bid until the seventh inning. “I looked at the board and I was like 0-0-0, damn! Now we’ve got to keep this going. I wish I hadn’t even seen it to be honest.” One inning later, Estrada’s no-hit bid ended.
“I made a bad pitch to Young and he crushed it,” Estrada added. “You tip your hat and move on.”
After pitching eight innings of two-run ball his ERA sits at 2.41, fourth-best in the American League. He has now allowed just 44 hits in 74.2 innings this year, a reflection of season-long success.
“He’s a master at his craft,” Gibbons said. “Scouts would grade out what he’s got and he’s not going to light you up other than that changeup, but he’s a pitcher — a very, very good pitcher.”
Estrada seems to specialize in weak contact, inducing far more than his share of easily catchable pop ups and shallow fly balls.
“That’s what Marco does. He pitches to contact and he makes guys just miss,” Martin said. “He’s able to mix his pitches better than anybody. That’s why it’s tough hitting against him. You don’t know if it’s going to be fastball, curveball, cutter or changeup.”
Combined with a four-homer outburst, Estrada’s 110-pitch outing allowed the Blue Jays to beat the Red Sox 5-4 and win the series against their division rivals. A late three-run rally against closer Roberto Osuna made things dangerously close, but the game ended with the tying run on second base.
“They made it very interesting, but our young kid did it again,” Gibbons said. “He doesn’t cave in. Lesser guys? They might get a big knock right there and the game goes the other way.”
“It just shows what poise (Osuna) has,” Martin added. “You want your closer to have nerves of steel and he definitely has that.”
The win caps off a stretch of 12 consecutive games against the Red Sox and New York Yankees in which the Blue Jays went 9-3. That impressive run gives the Blue Jays a 31-27 record entering a three-game series in Detroit against the Tigers.
“We’re a good team,” Martin said. “We’ve just got to keep playing good baseball. The division’s tough. You’ve got to play well to win against teams like that. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Jose Bautista’s leadoff home run set the tone for the Blue Jays, who hit four balls over the Green Monster. Darwin Barney continued his offensive spree with his third homer of the year, Edwin Encarnacion added a two-run shot and Martin contributed with a solo shot, his fourth since May 25.
Josh Donaldson returned to the lineup as the designated hitter with a walk in four plate appearances after extensive treatment with head trainer George Poulis Saturday and Sunday.
“He responded great. He’s a warrior,” Poulis said. “He’s smart enough to let us know if he needs another day and he definitely did not say that.”
Dave Stieb pitched the first and only no-hitter in Blue Jays history against the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 2, 1990, but Estrada does have experience with no-hit bids. In consecutive starts last year he took no-hitters into the eighth inning, first against the Orioles on June 19 then against the Rays on June 24.
“That’s last year. Last year’s over with,” Estrada said. “I haven’t pitched one so there’s nothing to think about. It’s a new year.”
One that’s going even better than last year for the Blue Jays right-hander.