Sanchez survives return to mound as Blue Jays walk off Mariners


Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) throws against the Seattle Mariners during first inning American League baseball action in Toronto, Sunday, May 14, 2017. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — It was without question the most scrutinized, worried-about, prayed-about first inning for the Toronto Blue Jays since – well, since the last time Aaron Sanchez took the mound in a baseball game.

Television cameras showed little blots of blood on the thigh of his white pants; Ben Gamel put him through a nine-pitch ringer of an at-bat before finally succumbing and striking out; Nelson Cruz walked on four pitches and Kyle Seager stroked a liner to left. It was noted that Sanchez was taking frequent walks off the back of the mound. But there was a point where it all normalized for Sanchez, a point in Sunday’s 3-2 walk-off win where it became all about managing the game. About being an MLB starter.

And part of the credit goes to home plate umpire Lance Barksdale.

It was Kevin Pillar’s first career walk-off home run – his fifth HR of the season – that lifted the Blue Jays to their season-high fifth consecutive win and a sweep of the Seattle Mariners that has breathed new life into the 2017 season. But another bullish relief outing provided the backbone for victory on a day when Sanchez went five innings, striking out four and walking a pair of hitters, in a return to the mound after a still-born attempt to return from a blister on April 30 ended after one inning.

The Blue Jays have made a habit of late-game bombs this season – the fact they lead the American League with 21 homers in the seventh inning or later is one of the few positive offensive indicators for a 17-21 team – but Sanchez’s return could be a harbinger for a team that could find itself just a tick under .500 when Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin return, likely this week.

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Sanchez threw 16 pitches in the first inning, then nodded at Barksdale as he walked toward the dugout, asking if he could have a chat. Barksdale motioned him over, walking casually toward the pitcher.

“I thought there were a couple of good pitches, and I just wanted clarification if he had the pitch out or down,” said Sanchez. “He said he had it more out then down and once he told me that, I was totally OK with it. I just wanted to know where his strike zone was and what he does because I haven’t been out there for a while and I don’t even know if he’s been behind the dish with me out there the past few years. As the game went on, I thought I made more good pitches out there, but he was consistent and you can’t be mad. I came in here and watched the game for a bit and (the Mariners were) throwing the same pitches and not getting calls. When you see a guy who was as consistent as he was with his zone, you kind of say: ‘That’s OK,’ and work with his zone and use the strengths you have.”

This was hardly a dominating Sanchez. The Mariners swung and missed at one pitch – Gamel whiffing in his at-bat – and Sanchez received another leaping catch from Pillar and cat-quick plays by Justin Smoak and Ryan Goins, while catcher Luke Maile threw out Jean Segura after he led off the game with a single on a close play overturned via replay.

It was Smoak’s two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth off reliever James Pazos that put the Blue Jays in front 2-1 after a throwing error by Jose Bautista in the top of the inning allowed Carlos Ruiz to scoot home with the game’s first run. Jarrod Dyson tied it with his first homer of the year off Dominic Leone in the seventh.

Ryan Tepera (3-1) worked 2 1/3 innings of relief for the win. Mariners closer Edwin Diaz (1-2) gave up the walk-off homer on a slider.

“You know, I thought (Sanchez) was fine, especially considering the little pitching he’s done in game-type situations,” said manager John Gibbons. “He felt good. We thought about sending him out there (for the sixth) but decided not too.”

As for the blood? Gibbons waved off commenting; while Sanchez wasn’t interested in going into detail. He said he was “pretty sure,” there were no issues, and when pressed said: “I mean, yeah, but can we keep this about the game?”

“It was not an issue. There was no pain.”

It was, Sanchez said, a continuation of the approach he took with him to the mound.

“I felt like if I went back out there thinking about it (the nail) I would be defeated,” he said. “I went out there to compete, attack and not worry about what’s going on in the finger. Just go out until I reach my pitch count.”

Sanchez’s finger wasn’t the only health concern that Gibbons didn’t wish to discuss.

The Blue Jays might have another candidate for the disabled list, as Steve Pearce will undergo an MRI on his right calf after pulling up lame on a hustling, second-inning double.

“Calf,” Gibbons said. “I’m tired of talking about it. Calf … he’ll get an MRI, though.”

The Blue Jays will try to build on their first four-game sweep since Aug. 3-6, 2015, against the Minnesota Twins when the Atlanta Braves close out the homestand Monday with the first of two games at the Rogers Centre in a four-game home-and-home interleague series. Don’t cancel summer yet, folks.

“You just look at the group of guys that are in here,” Pillar said, when asked what explained the Blue Jays turnaround with over $70 million worth of ballplayers on the disabled list. “It’s pretty much the same group of guys that’s been to back-to-back ALCS except for Edwin (Encarnacion) … and you replace him with a guy, Kendrys Morales, who has won a World Series.

“We just felt like things weren’t going our way early on. We were competing, we were playing well; we just didn’t come up with timely hits. It seemed like teams were blooping balls in or taking an extra base and we just couldn’t find a way to win games and with all the injuries happening we just kind of took the mindset that this is the group of guys we have here, and if we can go on a little run and we know we’re getting some guys back, we’ll make a real run at this thing.”

Sanchez’s view? It was just, in his words, “a rough start.”

And now?

“I don’t know, man,” Sanchez said. “We’re just not missing pitches. We’ve been pitching well – the bullpen’s been pitching really well – and even the new guys have come in and done a good job for us. Maybe guys were a little anxious. Who knows what it was? I’m just glad to be back to the team we looked like the last few years.”

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