Sanchez unravels after injury scare in microcosmic start for Blue Jays

Freddie Galvis hit a grand slam to help the Blue Jays chip away at a 10-2 deficit against the Yankees, but fell short losing 10-8 in New York.

NEW YORK — Usually, when you see a Toronto Blue Jays trainer walking out to the mound during an Aaron Sanchez start, it’s to do with his hand. A blister, a broken nail, something related to the finger tendon issues he’s battled in recent seasons. But this time, as assistant athletic trainer Jose Ministral emerged from the dugout with a towel over his shoulder and Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo by his side, it wasn’t Sanchez’s hand at all. It was his leg.

Sanchez was through four and cruising right along with a two-run lead. He’d allowed only two hits and three walks, while striking out four. His command was a little spotty at times, but it often is. And you couldn’t argue with the results.

But as he faced Brett Gardner to lead off the fifth, Sanchez watched a 100-mph comebacker kick off the dirt in front of him and directly into his left shin. He scrambled after the ball and got the out at first. As Ministral arrived at the mound, Sanchez pulled up his left pant leg to reveal the damage. A brief mound huddle with the entire infield ensued, and after Sanchez threw a couple practice pitches, he remained in the game.

“It stung a little bit,” Sanchez said. “But, after that, it was fine.”

Sometimes these things happen and a pitcher carries on as he was, unaffected. And sometimes things change. Could be the welt. Could be the break in the game’s flow. Could just be a random, unfortunate turn of events. Whatever the reason, two of Sanchez’s next three pitches caught too much plate and were sent to the outfield for base hits. And the following at-bat changed the course of the entire night.

It was Aaron Hicks, the Yankees centre fielder, at the plate with those two runners on. Sanchez had struck Hicks out twice already, getting him to swing over a wicked curveball in the first, and look at a 95-mph fastball on the black in the third. But this time, Sanchez missed with his first two pitches. And he left his third, a 94-mph sinker, on the plate. And Hicks crushed it into the netting protecting the seats in right-field foul territory.

Close call. Sanchez collected himself, took a breath, and went right back to that same pitch in nearly an identical spot. And this time, Hicks didn’t miss it.

“It’s their plan here, you know? They look out over and try to hook it. It’s 314 down the line,” Sanchez said. “It is what it is. I didn’t think it was a bad pitch. It maybe flattened out a little bit. But, hey, he made a good swing on it and put them ahead.”

And things just unravelled from there. A two-run Blue Jays lead became a one-run Yankees advantage. And by the end of the sixth, that deficit had stretched to eight, seven of them credited to Sanchez’s final line. In the end, the Yankees won in a slugfest 10-8.

Who’s to say if Sanchez’s sudden troubles had something to do with Gardner’s comebacker or not? It was his third trip through the order, after all, which is generally when bad things happen to starting pitchers. But, coming into the game, the Blue Jays right-hander actually had better numbers his third time through a lineup than his second, for what it’s worth.

Aaron Sanchez opponents results by trip through batting order
1st 96 6 1 0.25 0.365 0.313
2nd 120 23 4 0.356 0.45 0.554
3rd 87 15 3 0.26 0.36 0.452

And he looked fine immediately after Hicks’ shot into the right-field short porch, easily escaping the fifth with a pair of groundballs. But his first pitch of the sixth, a curveball on the plate, went for a single. And at the end of an extended battle with Gleyber Torres, he caught another comebacker, this time off his glove, which skipped up the middle into shallow centre field.

Torres dove into second with a double, pushing the lead runner to third. And after another visit from Ministral, and another delay to allow Sanchez to regroup, Gio Urshela rolled a swinging bunt up the third base line that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. couldn’t make a play on. A run scored. One more came in on a fielder’s choice. And after Sanchez’s very next pitch, another mislocated curveball, was driven into left, Montoyo came out to the mound to get him.

It was from the dugout that Sanchez watched as Derek Law entered, left a slider middle-middle to Luke Voit, and surrendered a ringing double up the left-field line that cashed the two runners Sanchez left on base. That closed the book on a nine-hit, seven-run outing that unravelled in a hurry.

“You know what, he pitched better than what his numbers show, for sure. He had good stuff. He was throwing his breaking pitches for a strike. I thought he did a great job,” Montoyo said. “Tough luck with the infield hit there and stuff. But that was his best outing in a while. He was really good today.

It was Sanchez’s second-worst start of the year, statistically. It followed a season-long trend of troubling inconsistency, in which the soon-to-be 27-year-old has looked both dominant and ineffective, sometimes within the same outing. And it only added to a disappointing campaign in which Sanchez has battled finger issues intermittently, pitched to a 5.89 ERA and eroded whatever trade value the Blue Jays were hoping he’d have at next month’s deadline.

“I was definitely way better than I’ve been. Down in the zone, keeping the ball on the ground. That’s a positive, I’ve done that well,” Sanchez said. “You know, I really didn’t get hit hard until later in the game. I think I had two hits, one was an infield hit, the other was like a bloop to right. I’m making progress. It’s just about staying with the process and understanding what I’m trying to get out of it and taking the positives from it and moving on.”

Like Sanchez said, there’s been good and there’s been bad. What must be so frustrating about it is the unfortunate luck he’s experienced. You can’t fault Sanchez for taking those two comebackers, or Urshela’s infield single, or the fact another pitcher gave up his final two runs. Likewise for the broken nail that forced him from one outing earlier this season, or the blister that took him out of another. It’s not all within his control.

But you can fault him for going back to that same pitch in the same spot to Hicks after the Yankees slugger just missed it moments earlier. And for walking too many batters all season, as Sanchez currently carries a 5.1 BB/9. Not to mention the 35.4 per cent hard-hit rate, the highest he’s posted in his six MLB seasons. Sanchez has certainly given up his fair share of rockets.

It makes it tough to assess just where Sanchez stands midway through his 2019. His velocity’s been normal, and his curveball’s looked downright nasty at times. He’s still mixing in his changeup and having some success with it. He’s made all of his starts, which wasn’t the case in either of his last two seasons. That has to qualify as a small victory in and of itself.

But there have been times when Sanchez has looked anything but himself on the mound, and if his current numbers hold, this will go down as the worst season of his career. In a way, Monday’s start was a microcosm for his entire campaign. Smooth sailing for a spell. A bad break here and there. Some poor execution, a couple hard hit balls. And, in the end, disappointment.

“I feel like I’ve had better stuff than any of my numbers have shown. But that’s baseball,” Sanchez said. “What happens after you release the pitch is out of your control. It is what it is. You’ve just got to keep making pitches. And I’ve been getting burned.”

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