TORONTO – To those still advocating for Aaron Sanchez’s return to the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen, just take a close look at what he did to the Boston Red Sox on Friday night.
Seven innings of two-hit ball. Twelve outs on the ground. The only worrisome jams he was in were created by either error or himself. Both times his overwhelming repertoire made for safe escapes. One of baseball’s best lineups – minus the suspended David Ortiz and injured Hanley Ramirez – was stifled.
Jagged edges in the 22-year-old’s game remain to be sure – five walks and a hit-batsman speak to that – but for the first time this season, visions of what Sanchez can be were enticingly evident in a 7-0 victory.
"That’s what he’s capable of," said manager John Gibbons.
Consider for a second that he’s also the first Blue Jays starter to pitch at least five innings without allowing an earned run this season, and it’s easy to think that if given enough time he could very well fill some of the void left by Marcus Stroman’s season-ending knee injury.
It’s still a long leap from here to there, but if anyone in-house for the Blue Jays is going to make the jump, it’s Sanchez.
Making this start all the more significant is that he built upon the last time he faced the Red Sox, when he allowed four runs, three earned, over 5.2 innings of what ended as a 6-5 loss. Sanchez struck out seven in that game and just three in this one, but was in total and complete command Friday.
"I felt like I got more out of my pitches thrown tonight than I did in Boston," said Sanchez. "The walks are the biggest thing from start one to start six, but I had a better feel for everything. I attacked the hitters, that’s been the same game-plan every time out, but I just executed a lot more pitches than last time there."
Staked to a 2-0 lead on solo shots by Josh Donaldson in the first and Chris Colabello in the second, he faced some mild trouble in the third when a Donaldson error allowed Xander Bogaerts to reach and then Sanchez’s poor throw to second on Travis Shaw’s comebacker meant only one out instead of two. After a flyout and walk to Dustin Pedroia brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Pablo Sandoval, Sanchez got a grounder to first to preserve the lead.
An even greater escape came in the fourth when he walked Mike Napoli and Daniel Nava before grazing Allen Craig to load the bases, but again the Red Sox came up empty as Blake Swihart went down looking before Bogaerts hit into an inning-ending double play.
"He was able to get back in the strike zone even after the one inning where he lost command a little bit," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "He walks two, he hits Craig. His ability to make an adjustment inside the inning was different this time than the last time around."
At that point Sanchez’s night of living dangerously came to an end, retiring the next nine batters before a walk to Shaw and a seeing-eye single by Mookie Betts ended his night in the eighth after a career-high tying 108 pitches.
"I think that in his mindset he was just letting it go. Being aggressive. Not trying to be too fine," said catcher Russell Martin. "It looked like he just felt rhythm. I felt like we had a good rhythm going on. He had a good feel for his breaking ball, too. Once you attack the zone and you’re throwing strikes and you’re getting ahead, then it makes the opposing team swing the bat. Once we have them swinging the bats early, that’s when you get early contact on some stuff."
Aaron Loup was clinical out of the bullpen to keep what was then a 4-0 lead intact, and an RBI single by Edwin Encarnacion that cashed in Jose Bautista’s first triple since Aug. 21, 2011 against Oakland plus a two-run single by Ezequiel Carrera busted things open in the bottom half.
The Blue Jays offence wore down Red Sox starter Wade Miley, taking four runs on the left-hander, before adding on against the bullpen, while Ryan Goins played another gem of a game at shortstop that included a diving stop of a Craig shot up the middle and long throw from his knees for an out that came when a replay review overturned a safe call.
Combined, it made for one of those rare nights when all facets of the Blue Jays’ game worked in sync, led by a Sanchez effort that hinted at a fulfilment of promise.