Everything slowly coming together for Blue Jays’ Sanchez

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins Arash Madani to recap Aaron Sanchez's start for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Atlanta Braves in spring training.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Last year, Aaron Sanchez felt like he pitched “in a little bit of a cage,” trapped by the limitations of the troublesome middle finger that ultimately submarined his season. This spring, with the blister and tendon issues behind him, “I’m finally free,” says the right-hander with the potential to be a major difference-maker for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Still, while the physical side has largely resolved itself over the past five weeks in Florida, Sanchez has needed to re-acclimate to some of the finer points of standing on the mound after logging just 36 innings over eight truncated outings during his star-crossed 2017 campaign.

In many ways, all those elements came together for him Monday over 6.1 strong innings of work in a 6-0 Grapefruit League loss to the Atlanta Braves. He allowed two runs, one earned, on two hits with four strikeouts versus a lineup stacked with six batters hitting from the left side, inducing 13 groundball outs.

Little wonder he was grinning ear-to-ear after his penultimate start before the season starts.

“Today was a good test,” Sanchez said afterwards. “I tried to treat today as much as I could as a (regular-season) start. Before, it was still a little tough in terms of finding tempo in my first start, then finding the strike zone in my second start, trying to incorporate both of those in my third start and then trying to get my off-speed and all those in this start. I feel like I’m where I need to be.

“I’ll get one more start that doesn’t really mean much in spring training, so I’ll try to knock off all the rest then and I’ll be ready to go.”

The Braves made little solid contact against Sanchez and as evidenced by the three looking strikeouts, had trouble pulling the trigger even when they had to. There are refinements still needed to his curveball and changeup, he said, but he indicated he’s in the touch-up phase rather than trying to regain feel, the way he was earlier this spring.

“How fast I was going through my delivery, making sure I was hitting my checkpoints,” he said of some of the initial areas of rust. “I know I’ve said that in years past, making sure I’m balanced here, making sure I’m balanced there, I’m not rushing through my delivery. That was the first thing because I hadn’t had competition and I was so eager to go out there and compete. It was like, alright, stay within and let all that other stuff fall into place.”

Monday, it did, giving Sanchez the type of feeling he’s been building towards all spring. Next up is a start against the New York Yankees on Saturday, an outing that potentially lines him up to pitch the second game of the regular season versus the Yankees, seemingly behind J.A. Happ, who starts Friday at Tampa Bay.

Regardless of how the rotation shakes out, Sanchez sure looks set for his first start in the majors since last July 19 at Boston, when he allowed five runs, three earned, in four innings at Boston.

After such a long wait and difficult road back, “everything about pitching in the big-leagues is what I’m ready for.”

Some other talking points from Monday:

1. Danny Espinosa played seven innings at shortstop in his third game since signing a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays, going 0-for-3 including a soft liner to left caught on the slide by Preston Tucker. The versatile infielder played at third, short and second in his first game Saturday and at second Sunday as the club tries to cram in a long look at him in the final week. “We’re going to push him this week to get as many at-bats as he can, but also see him play several different positions,” said bench coach DeMarlo Hale, the acting manager Monday. At this point Espinosa seems to be the favourite to break camp with the team over Gift Ngoepe, who started at second base and switched over to shortstop to close out the game.

2. Randal Grichuk stayed back in Dunedin, Fla., but a second straight day of hitting is said to have gone well for the outfielder, who is working through a ribcage issue. Before the session, DeMarlo Hale said Grichuk is doing much better and with his activity level increasing, the Blue Jays will assess “how he responds after today and then make plans accordingly of where we can get him in and get some at-bats.” Grichuk has 17 at-bats so far this spring but none since March 9.

3. Teoscar Hernandez collected two of the four Blue Jays hits Monday as he continues to impress, ripping a ground-ball down the third-base line for a double before adding a line-drive single to the opposite field. Both hits came off Julio Teheran. Should Randal Grichuk not be ready for the start of the regular season, Hernandez is the likeliest candidate to take his spot, especially now that prospect Anthony Alford is out with a hamstring injury.

4. Reliever Seung-hwan Oh boarded a flight late Sunday night to Toronto where he hopes to get his troublesome work visa issues finally sorted. The right-hander hasn’t pitched in a spring game yet this spring but has been up to 40 pitches without issue in his side sessions, impressing the Blue Jays staff with his stuff. The hope is to get him an inning Wednesday against the Phillies.

5. Speedy outfield farmhand Roemon Fields laid down a beautiful bunt single down the third-base line to lead off the sixth but after several pick-off attempts, Julio Teheran finally caught him leaning with two outs to end the frame. Fields seemed to think Teheran balked but first-base umpire Laz Diaz disagreed.

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