PHOENIX – The discussion about whether and when Aaron Sanchez transitions to the bullpen only intensifies from here on out, a polarizing once-every-fifth-day focal point that carries both short- and long-term stakes.
More outings like the seven outstanding innings the all-star right-hander threw at the Arizona Diamondbacks in Tuesday night’s 5-1 victory will further fuel the let-him-start camp. Sanchez used his buzz-saw sinker to escape some early trouble with minimal damage before he settled in and locked things down. He maintained velocity, his mechanics looked clean and he fielded his position well, giving the protect-his-arm crowd little to pick at from this night.
"It’s a dilemma," manager John Gibbons said of the situation. "If and when (a move to the bullpen) happens we’re not going to be real popular out there and in that (locker) room there probably. But it hasn’t happened yet. Somebody’s got to wear it if it does though."
Backing Sanchez was Edwin Encarnacion’s 25th home run of the season, a three-run drive to left-centre field in the third inning that gave him eight homers in seven Chase Field games with the Toronto Blue Jays (53-42). The drive opened up a 3-1 lead and paved the way for a second straight win after two losses in Oakland out of the all-star break. Josh Donaldson, who had three hits, added an RBI single in the fifth while Devon Travis, who had two hits, padded the margin with a run-scoring groundout in the ninth.
"I see the ball real well, I feel comfortable in this ballpark so it works out," Encarnacion, who had a three-homer game as part of a five-homer series at Arizona in 2010, said through interpreter Josue Peley. "Maybe it’s the batter’s eye (in centre field), it’s really big. Maybe it’s that."
The key is Sanchez, now 10-1 with a 2.87 ERA, who keeps making one of the more complicated decisions the Blue Jays have faced with a player in recent years all the more difficult. Having already surpassed the 109.1 total frames he logged last year, he’s now eight away from the career-high of 133.1 innings he established in 2014.
How far he should exceed that total is an ongoing internal, as well as an external, debate, one without an obvious answer. There’s no foolproof approach to keeping an arm healthy, although history shows massive jumps in workload for young pitchers often don’t end well.
"You watch everything he’s doing, you almost think (it’s) crazy to move him out of there," Gibbons said before the game. "But you look at what has happened. Nobody knows if guys actually get injured, because they protect guys and they still get injured. Nobody can really say. You look around and you see some guys with a huge jump in innings. It might not do anything to them that year but that next year; you look at some of the Mets guys.
"So who knows? The last thing you want to have happen is some kid getting hurt because you pushed it too much. But it seems like most of them get hurt anyway. I don’t know."
The initial plan when Sanchez was put in the rotation in the spring was for him to eventually transition to the bullpen sometime in the next little while, allowing him to safely build his innings count before the reins come off next year.
Gibbons said "I think it will," still happen but added, "there has been some debate on that."
"He has been in the bullpen the last two years for us and has been really, really good," Gibbons continued. "I know it would upgrade the bullpen, that’s for damn sure, but he’s one of the best young starters in the league, too. I don’t know when that’s going to happen."
Sanchez’s growing poise on the mound was on display in the bottom half of the third, his most pivotal inning. Right after the Blue Jays took a 3-1 lead, the first two Diamondbacks batters reached and Michael Bourn’s roller up the first-base line pushed the runners into scoring position for Paul Goldschmidt. But the perennial MVP candidate rolled over a changeup for a weak grounder to third for the second out before Jake Lamb flew out to centre to end the threat.
"He was aggressive, I know he’s aggressive, especially with guys in scoring position," Sanchez said of Goldschmidt, whose groundout in the first cashed in Arizona’s only run. "I just told myself to execute the pitch. In that situation one (run) is better than two, two is better than three and obviously I came out of there with nothing, which is better than everything. But I just knew he was aggressive, he came out swinging first pitch his first at-bat, I was trying to get him to ground something to the left side of the infield to hold those runners and it just happened to work out."
Why use the changeup instead of his bread and butter two-seamer?
"I had been sinker all day and guys coming are probably coming up to the plate understanding that velocity is there," said Sanchez. "With my changeup I can get good arm-speed with it and it’s going to be a good pitch and that’s what happened."
The next inning a hit batter and a single put two aboard with one out but Nick Ahmed chopped a two-seamer to the mound for an inning-ending double play. Sanchez ended up allowing one run on six hits with two hit batters and five strikeouts. He handed things over to Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna with the Blue Jays in firm control.
As for the bigger picture, Sanchez said, "it’s something I can’t control."
"I’m going to go out there and take the ball every five days until they tell me not to," he continued. "That’s all I’m worried about, really. When the time comes, that’s when we’ll have to worry about it. But for now, I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing."
His dominance to this point has been crystal clear, while what’s best for him, his long-term health and the Blue Jays as a whole is becoming increasingly clouded.